I WAS accosted this month in the nicest possible way by a couple wanting to purchase a pink Poinsettia.
I went through the usual stories that in recent years many new colours have been introduced to the brightly coloured bracts that surround the small yellow flowers. Some of the new colours, such as the garish deep pinks and purples, seem to appeal to younger gardeners while us older ones seem to favour the traditional deep red with almost black foliage or pink with lighter green foliage.
I went on to explain that with so many colours available, and with the current high cost of energy, there was likely to be shortages of some particular varieties.
Growers throughout Britain, not just in the Poinsettia trade but those using greenhouses that are heated, have been hit by huge increases in fuel costs.
Poinsettias need it warm; they are frequently grown at 16° C 61°F or warmer, and because of this, a considerable number of growers have decided this year to simply leave their greenhouses empty as they were actually losing money in growing Poinsettias. Therefore, I thought it was worth looking back at the Poinsettia because it has been part of our Christmas tradition for many years.
The Poinsettia actually originates from Mexico and Central America and while its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima it is better known by its common name of Poinsettia, which is derived from the name of the botanist, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who in 1825 introduced the plant to the United States. The history of the plant goes back much further when the Aztecs called Poinsettias cuetelaxochitel and by the 14th century the bracts were used to make red dye while the sap was widely believed to be used in herbal medicines to control fevers and cleanse the system. Today the sap can be an irritant if leaves or stems are broken and the sap gets into a cut or wound. Over the years, the plant had many common names; in Chile and Peru it was known as the Crown of the Andes while in Mexico it is known as the Christmas Eve flower. Over in Turkey it was named after the founder of the Republic, and hence is known as Ataturk's flower.
It seems the plants' association with Christmas began during the 16th century when in Mexico legend has it that a poor girl had nothing to celebrate Jesus's birthday. It is said that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them at the front of the church altar. Crimson blossoms are said to have sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful Poinsettias. By the 17th century, Franciscan Friars in Mexico had introduced the plants into their Christmas celebrations and the star shaped leaf pattern is reputed to symbolise the star of Bethlehem while the red colour represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
John Bartram, a nurseryman from Pennsylvania in America, is credited as being the first person to sell Poinsettias under their Latin name of Euphorbia pulcherrima. But it wasn't until the beginning of the 1900s that the poinsettia really became popular.
It was all down to a German by the name of Albert Ecke who emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1900. He initially started a dairy and orchard business but became intrigued by Poinsettias and started to sell them from street stalls. His son Paul Ecke developed a grafting technique, which caused plants to produce many more branches and in turn more coloured bracts. His son Paul Ecke Jr was responsible for promoting the association of Poinsettias and Christmas, along with improved growing techniques that really made Poinsettias become the traditional Christmas plant they are today.
Paul was good at marketing, and quickly realised that by sending plants to television stations, he could get them promoted on television; they even appeared in the Bob Hope's Christmas specials. By this time transport was changing rapidly and it was possible to ship cuttings by air literally around the world. This is the story of how the Poinsettia came to Britain as a commercial crop for our growers and a great plant for a Christmas present
Even today the Ecke family, now led by Paul Ecke the third, produce more than 50% of all Poinsettias sold in the world. Sadly, in 2008 they ceased production in America, moving to more favourable climates in warmer countries around the world to produce cuttings and new varieties. The techniques during the last 80 years or so have allowed growers to produce much more compact and branched plants and to increase hugely the range of colours in the bracts surrounding the flowers. In the early days poinsettias would grow three or four feet tall and up until quite recently, they were treated with a growth hormone to keep them dwarf.
The other big secret begun by the Ecke family was a technique known as short day long night treatment and this enabled growers to have a much extended season around the world. Believe it or not if commercial growers had not covered their Poinsettias in Britain to give plants at least 12 hours' darkness for around 8 weeks from early September then the Poinsettia would not produce those lovely coloured bracts naturally until March or early April!
Poinsettias can really cheer up the home over the Christmas period but sadly many failed to survive more than a few weeks. However, by following a few simple tips you can not only make them last the season but you can grow them from year to year and with a little trouble you can manage to introduce coloured bracts again in time for Christmas next year.
Choosing your plant is very important and I would always go to a good garden centre or nursery where plants have been kept warm. They do not like the temperature dropping below 13 to 15°C 55 to 59°F. The tips to look for are healthy plants with leaves right down to the base of the stems.
A good garden centre or nursery will offer to wrap your Poinsettia, even covering the top with a fold of paper to keep it warm. I often joke that the Poinsettia should go on the back seat of the car even if it means putting the mother-in-law in the boot! Once you get the plant home remove the wrapping as soon as possible and place your plant in a bright position but away from strong sun and especially draughts.
I remember my dear old late grandfather who in his 90s was proud of the Poinsettia that sat in the middle of the kitchen table. It was away from the draughty windows and doors and that was the only room in the house that was kept warm overnight by the old Aga cooker, which was never allowed to burn out. Granddad had the watering off to a fine art; he would let the compost on the surface appear almost bone dry. On the other hand he never waited until the foliage began to wilt. The art was to water when the compost was becoming dry and before the leaves would begin to droop.
Remember, Poinsettias are closely related to a number of succulents; they do not need a lot of water and I reckon overwatering probably kills 90%. Nor do they like a lot of feed. During the winter I would recommend monthly feeds with half strength tomato fertiliser. Keep the plant away from draughty window sills or the fierce heat generated by a radiator. It was probably the cooking steam that produced the ideal atmosphere for my grandfather's Poinsettia and what's more he managed to keep it from year to year.
If you want to have a go at keeping the Poinsettia from year to year I would recommend re-potting during March or April using a very lightweight peat base or peat alternative compost with added perlite to keep it more open or porous. I would also recommend not to firm in the compost at all; just a gentle tap of the pot will settle the compost sufficiently. In April or May you can hand prune the plant to about 4 inches and although little sap may be exuded they usually dry up within a few days.
If you want your Poinsettia to be ready for the following Christmas you'll need to give it a minimum of 12 hours' dark, by covering it with a large cardboard box that is totally light tight from early evening till the following morning throughout October and November.
Have a great Christmas and a fabulous growing year next year. Remember you will always find plenty advice and gardening news on my website and you can sign up for newsletters and fact sheets it's www.thedrurys.com