Northwest NEWS

December 2, 2002

Front Page

White Christmas or purple, peach, hot pink Christmas

The plant that makes it happen.

by Bronwyn Wilson
   Senior Staff Writer


   Dreaming of a white Christmas? Try Nutcracker White or Whitestar. But don't stop at white. Feel free to dream of a mauve Christmas, or a speckled, swirled, peach, hot pink Christmas.
   With so many new varieties and colors of poinsettias, there's no limit to the possibilities. This Christmas plant, which once only came in red, has diversified.
   Breeders have been busy developing new varieties in more shades of colors than a 64-count box of Crayons can boast. Deep purple, dusky plum, lemon yellow, hot coral pink to name a few.
   Many have variegations like Peterstar Marble which sports pale pink bracts with yellow splotches around the edges. Cortez Burgundy, new this year, has bracts looking as if they were hand cut out of deep red velour. Sonora White Glitter radiates glints of yellow on red and the Monet poinsettia exhibits drifts of pink to burgundy. Each Monet bract appears to have been painted by the artist himself.
   Even with so many choices, traditional red still rules. "Red is still the highest percentage of our crop," says Peggy Campbell, Education Director at Molbak's. Red poinsettias contribute to seventy-two percent of market sales nationwide. The wild new shades, however, have begun to gain ground and Molbak's currently offers 35 different varieties.
   According to Campbell, Molbak's sold only one color of poinsettia back in its early retail days. "Just red," she clarifies. Then Molbak's branched out and included a white poinsettia among its inventory. Later, the company added a unique novelty, a festive red plant speckled with pink called Jingle Bells.
   "Jingle Bells was one of the first plants that was not a solid color," Campbell explains and adds, "Now, we have colors ranging from bright pink, salmon, coral, marbled and the Jingle Bell types with splashes of color."
   Winter Rose, introduced within the past few years, garners as much attention due to its shape as its vibrant red color. The plant models frilly, curled-up bracts like a rose in bloom. Says Campbell, "It's an excellent plant and it looks like a pom-pom."
   Freedom Fireworks, a new introduction this year, also captures the essence of its name with its narrow pointed bracts, looking fiery red and explosive. "When you see a fireworks display-this one is reminiscent of that," Campbell says.
   In addition, she mentions Nutcracker White, a showy white poinsettia making its debut this year. "It's one of the truer whites. Not cream-based like the others." She goes on to say, "One of my personal favorites is the Whitestar. It has humongous bracts. And, one of the most striking reds is called Maui Red. It's a very handsome velvety red and the regular leaves are a dark green, making a very striking contrast."
   Molbak's grows 45,000 poinsettia plants a year and planting time begins in June, a time when Christmas seems a hundred years away.
   The growers start with unrooted cuttings, called cultivars. They place the 2-inch cultivars in a rooting media and roots form in July. The growers then plant the cultivars in soil during August, spacing the pots on tables. When September rolls around, the plants undergo a blackout process. "At Molbak's, we start the process called 'forcing' to color up [the plants] sooner than they would naturally.
   "We use a blackout curtain to guarantee uninterrupted darkness. Exterior lighting, such as car lights and street lights, interrupts the process," Campbell says.
   It was the Aztecs of Mexico who first cultivated poinsettias. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Aztecs used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric for clothing and used the sap for medicinal purposes.
   In 1825, Joel Robert Poinsett, first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, visited the Mexican village of Taxco where the plants flourished on hillsides.
   Says Campbell, "When he saw the plant, he was really taken with it." Poinsett, a botanist, sent some of the plants to his home in Greenville, South Carolina, and many of his colleagues dismissed the plant as a weed.
   But Poinsett continued to breed the plant in his greenhouse and share it with his horticulturist friends. It soon gained acceptance as a Christmas plant, naturally coloring up around the holidays. It wasn't until the 1960s that researchers were able to breed the plants to bloom more than just a few days.
   Today, a poinsettia's color lasts for months and in shades to coordinate with every type of home décor. Pat Kinman, Marketing Manger for Paul Ecke Ranch—a large-scale grower of poinsettias in Southern California, comments, "We realize the color schemes in people's homes are changing. They're moving away from basic beige. The Plum Pudding poinsettia (for example) fits into the color palette of today's homeowner."
   Paul Ecke Ranch breeds and produces poinsettia lines, supplying over 70 percent of poinsettia cuttings across the country, including those sent to Molbak's.
   Before Molbak's sells the new varieties at their store, they 'trial' the new plants, testing them under various growing conditions and evaluating their performance. Not all varieties fare well outside the greenhouse. To see how well a new plant performs in a domestic situation, a group of employees from Molbak's takes the new plants to their own homes for observation.
   Kinman says that Ecke Ranch trials the new plants with larger growers and universities throughout the country and the procedure can take 5 to 7 years.
   "It's a long and arduous process. Winter Rose was thirty years in the making and a lot of growers were not comfortable, at first, with the Winter Rose. It looked like it was diseased (to them). But when it was introduced on the market, it sold like gangbusters. The women just went gaga over it."
   Poinsettia breeding began in the 80s with new varieties introduced in the 90s.
   New colors and shapes were developed through one of three processes and Kinman explains, "Some naturally mutate through nature. The Plum Pudding was a natural mutation. Others are cross-pollinated. And, there's radiation—put them in a radiated environment and they will mutate to something."
   She points out that a new variety called Strawberries and Cream was created through the radiation process.
   Also, the Ecke Company dreams up the engaging poinsettia names ranging from Flirt to Jester Red and Heirloom Peach. Each name fits the plant and Kinman cites the Monet poinsettia as an example.
   "Monet gets darker as it gets closer to Christmas. It changes like art." Next year's introductions, Enduring Pink and Chianti Red, now anxiously wait to live up to their name and will make their grand appearance in Christmas 2003.
   In the end, though, people think of red before any other color when it comes to the Christmas season.
   Kinman explains that groups taking tours at Ecke Ranch have an invitation to choose a cutting before leaving the premises. "(The tour guide) tells them to pick only one and he notices a lot of people pick red—red to them is still the symbol of Christmas."

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Photo by Ian Gleadle
With so many new varieties and colors of poinsetties, there's no limit to the possibilities for holiday decorations. Molbak's Poinsettis Festival runs through Dec. 15th.