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
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."
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