When Joel Poinsett discovered the plant that would bear his name, in Mexico in the 1820s, he had no way of knowing it would become America's No. 1 potted plant.
But if the diplomat and plant enthusiast could come back and peruse the shelves of poinsettias displayed by mass merchandisers in the 21st century, he would be hard pressed to recognize his namesake. Like today's versions, Poinsett's original has red flowers, which are actually leaflike bracts. But it is a spindly shrub of highland tropics growing to 10 feet tall.
The low-growing, multi-branched poinsettia we know and love -- with particular fervor this time of year -- is about as natural as a red-nosed reindeer.
This reality may satisfy the plant snobs who deride the poinsettia as a horticultural cliche, but Americans can't be wrong in buying 60 million poinsettias each year.
Rosemary is dandy, amaryllis is chic and dried wreaths may be magnificently Martha, but poinsettias win the popular vote. (Potted chrysanthemums are second, with about 30 million sold each year, according to USDA figures.)
Horticulturalist Catherine Ku at the University of Maryland in College Park, which test-grows 94 varieties of poinsettias for three major growers, says poinsettias are a natural for the holiday season because they are short-day plants: They need long nights to initiate their flowers. "This time of year is their natural blooming period," Ku says. "But you can get a plant to bloom at any time of year if you cover it at night so it gets the totally dark period it needs."
Growers are developing varieties of year-round poinsettias, says Laurie Scullin, director of marketing at the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., the nation's largest wholesaler. "We've got some wonderful new poinsettias for the potted-plant market for Valentine's and Mother's Day -- the Winter Rose in pinks, whites, marbles and the Monet types -- and are dabbling with the idea for the cut-flower market as well," Scullin says.
But sales of the plant currently are almost all compressed into the few weeks from mid-November to Dec. 25.
If you want something trendy, breeders have developed novel varieties in recent years: Monet with a bract of cream, rose and pink; Freedom Marble, with creamy yellow bracts and a pink center; and Freedom White, the sallowed hue of white chocolate.
But reds continue to predominate, with about three-quarters of the market today represented by that hue. Or hues. The red spectrum has been stretched: After producing Freedom Red, the Paul Ecke Ranch released one named Freedom Bright Red -- the slightly lighter coloring is supposed to glow more under the fluorescent lighting of the mass merchandisers. Others run to salmon, orange, pink, rose and coral.
Another consumer trend is in the forms with dark green leaves. Because most consumers fret that they are killing their poinsettias (usually with justification), the darker green leaves make the plant look healthier to begin with.
Traits are developed with the salability of the poinsettia in mind, but many are bred for the benefit of the grower, not the consumer directly, hence so many different varieties.
One red might work well as a tree form, another for growers in the Deep South; yet another as an early-season poinsettia that will make it to the stores around Thanksgiving.
But the most prized aspect of the plant, its cloak of "flowers," is achieved by forcing branching. This not only keeps the flowering stems low and pleasantly mounded but abundant. This can be accomplished by pinching back stems at various moments in the plant's development, but because there are so many factors that still can promote unwanted stretch -- light levels, humidity, irrigation practices and temperatures -- growers resort to spraying with growth-regulating chemicals.
Ecke supplies about eight in 10 of all poinsettias sold in this country, primarily by shipping stock plants to regional greenhouses, which then raise them over the summer and fall under license.
The company's Web site, www.ecke.com, offers good advice on what to look for in a healthy and long-lived poinsettia before you buy it. Beware of plants that are crowded or sheathed. Look too for dropped bracts, waterlogged soil and green or brown tinged bracts. Also look for the true, yellow flowers of the plant: Those whose buds are just opening are fresher than those that are full blown and fading.
When you're bringing your poinsettia home, protect the plant from chilling winds or cold temperatures: An oversize paper shopping bag will get it safely to the car.
Once home, poinsettias should be kept clear of direct sunlight, heat vents, drafty doors and windows and excessive watering. Pots must drain freely. Avoid fertilizing or getting the leaves wet.
The optimum location is a room that gets a lot of indirect sunlight but is not heated above 70 degrees. You can use it as a table centerpiece for a party, but place it back in a brighter location afterward.
If you want to try to keep the poinsettia from year to year, the Web site offers advice. But know too that the poinsettia is one of the most exacting plants to grow well.
Consigning the holiday poinsettia to the trash in January can be a liberating experience.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.