Toronto Star column – published December 13, 2014
Tried and True
“I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, ‘toys not included’.” ~Bernard Manning
If you are celebrating the Christmas tradition, chances are you have a ‘to-do’ list that includes picking up a poinsettia or two for the holidays. I’m hoping that by the end of today’s column, you will have a deeper appreciation for the one ‘living’ item that may be on your list this season and one of the few gifts that does not require batteries.
For those of us whose Christmas celebrations and decorating begin long before December 25th, the poinsettia is one of the few plants that will provide reliable colour. And like the batteries it doesn’t need, it lasts. And lasts. Sometimes it outlasts our desire to keep it alive. On many occasions I have met people who feel conflicted between preserving the poinsettia for another year and tossing it on the compost come February or March. I am inclined towards the ‘composting’ group as the red-bracted plant does not have a place in my spring and summer garden.
It may interest you to know that the poinsettia you buy today is much improved from the original species that was imported to the U.S. from its native Mexico in 1828. The annual ‘poinsettia trials’ this year included over 50 varieties and concluded with 14 hand-picked specimens as ‘winners’. Over the past 20 years, these North American trials, which include an important contribution from the research station in Vineland, Ontario, have produced over 200 varieties which show improvements over each previous generation of poinsettia.
In short, yesterday’s poinsettia is today’s foundation for a better performing plant.
Another interesting note is that the price of poinsettias has not gone up appreciably for more than 20 years. This reflects the vast improvement in production processes and an increasingly competitive market. I am pleased to report that most of the poinsettias sold in Canada are grown here: the same cannot be said about many cut flowers, and, in particular, roses. The latter were a huge economic generator for Canadians a generation ago but are now, alas, almost all imported from abroad.
The poinsettia is native to the Taxco del Alarcon region of Mexico. In 1828, Joel Poinsett, the first ambassador from the United States to Mexico, was touring the countryside when he spotted the ‘euphorbia’ in the highlands. The air was dry and evenings were cool, producing the euphorbia’s now well-known signature red upper leaves, or bracts. He sent a sample home to be grown in his greenhouse in Greenville, South Carolina. The rest, you could say, is history. Except for the aforementioned improvements on the original plant.
While the poinsettia is named after Mr. Poinsett, the native people of Mexico deserve credit for using the bracts to produce a purple dye for cosmetics and textiles. The white sap, now called latex, was used to treat fevers.
Today the myth that poinsettias are poisonous still persists, in spite of efforts to dispel it. The truth is that many tests over the last 50 years have proven that the plant and its sap are not poisonous, so there are generally no worries where either your cat or youngsters are concerned. However, some people are naturally allergic to latex and should not go near a poinsettia or, for that matter, any member of the euphorbia family.
Welcome to the Family
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a member of a large family of plants that includes over 2,000 cactus and succulent species. They have a white liquid sap (the latex) in common and a tendency to grow upper leaves that turn colour when days get short. These bracts are what we enjoy each Christmas. The flower is actually a non descript yellow thing that springs from a pea-sized green bud in the middle of the bract spray. When shopping for long-lasting poinsettias, avoid the specimens that are in flower and seek out the ones with the green peas in the middle of the red leaves.
When you bring your poinsettia home, follow my five tips for poinsettia care:
1. Make your poinsettia pick-up the last on your shopping trip. They do not like a cold car (or anything cold).
2. For best performance indoors, place your poinsettia in a bright room or window: remember that they originated in the dessert and love sunshine.
3. Keep from drafts: opening doors and heating vents are the enemy.
4. Do not let it sit in water. If it is in a decorative sleeve or pot cover, either remove it or punch holes in the bottom for drainage.
5. Water ONLY when the soil is dry to the touch or, for larger plants, a centimeter below the surface. Fertilize only after the first month if you are not ready to compost it. Use a half strength 20-20-20 solution every 2 weeks.
With all of the attributes that a poinsettia has to recommend it, I propose that we celebrate the poinsettia this season while it helps us celebrate the significance of the Christmas season. As it has for over 150 years.
While I am on the topic of great seasonal flowers, I must mention the amaryllis. This is another stand-out in the gift category that is so often overlooked. An amaryllis is the easiest plant to grow and therefore popular with people of all ages. It travels well (but does not like to be frozen) and will keep in the gift box nicely until Christmas, providing you keep it in a cool place (about 5 degrees or so below room temperature).
Amaryllis is a plant that gives you what you pay for it. There are specimens available for $10 or so and sometimes they are even gift boxed for that price! But they are small-ish bulbs that produce one or two stems of small-ish flowers.
In my books, the larger bulbs (28 to 32 cm circumference) are a much better value. They will produce up to 3 large stems and support up to 5 flowers per stem. More colour, more show, more fun. The people on your gift list are worth it.