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The Colorful Past of Poinsettias

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For many people, Christmas decorating is not complete without a beautiful poinsettia from Behnke Nurseries. In the nearly 40 years that Behnke Nurseries has grown poinsettias, we have grown and sold over a million plants. Our poinsettias are grown at our Lothian, Maryland production greenhouses, but, where did wild poinsettias come from in the first place? (“Wild poinsettias” seems like an oxymoron…) To trace the origin of poinsettias we have to look to our southern neighbors, home of so many economically important plants.

The poinsettia is native to tropical Mexico and Central America, where it grows straight and tall to ten feet.Poinsettias were grown by the Aztecs, who used them medicinally to reduce fever and to make a dye from the red flower bracts. The flowers were also used to symbolize purity. Following the invasion by the Spanish Conquistadors and the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion, many Indian traditions and ceremonies became intermingled with the “new ways.” During the 17th century, the Franciscans established a mission near Taxco. Because of its color and holiday blooming time, the poinsettia was used for the Fiesta de Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.

Following Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, the United States sent Joel Roberts Poinsett to Mexico as our first ambassador. In 1828 Poinsett sent some poinsettias to his home in Greenville, SC, where he had greenhouses. He had the plants propagated and distributed to friends. Poinsett, much more popular here than he was in Mexico, is honored with the celebration of National Poinsettia Day on December 12, the day of his death.

In 1833, the poinsettia was officially described and named Euphorbia pulcherrima by a German taxonomist named Willd. The Euphorbia genus is a large one, with worldwide representation. Its members include many popular perennials, many unpopular weeds, and many of the interesting cactus-like succulents found in Africa.

The poinsettia remained a plant of modest obscurity until it was noticed by Albert Ecke, a nurseryman in California. In 1906 he moved to Hollywood, and began growing field-grown cut flowers, including poinsettias. By 1909, Ecke was specializing in poinsettias, and The Ecke Poinsettia Ranch, now in Encinitas, CA, is still the world leader in poinsettia production. From 1923 to 1963 all significant poinsettia varieties grown in the United States came from Ecke.

Unlike today’s well-branched plants, these varieties were grown as single-stemmed individual plants with one flower-perhaps three plants in an 8 inch diameter pot. Also, the early varieties were very sensitive to changes in humidity and light conditions. They responded by dropping their leaves and flower bracts. Florists compensated for the no-leaf look by wrapping the pots and stems in foil to hide the bare stems-this is where foiled pots originated.

Alfred Millard, Behnke’s Vice President, recalls the early 1960’s when Behnke’s first started growing poinsettias. “We used to go out to the nursery and cut evergreen branches and put them into the poinsettia pots to hide the bare stems. In those days, poinsettias were not sold until the week before Christmas because they would not hold up for very long in the house. It was more like a flower arrangement than a potted plant.”

In 1963, Mikkelsen Greenhouses introduced `Paul Mikkelsen’. It had good foliage retention, and was the first long-lasting variety as well as the first cultivar that grew well as a potted plant. In 1968 Ecke introduced the `Eckespoint C-1′; and in the same year `Annette Hegg’ was introduced from Norway-both breakthroughs in that they made attractive branched plants. Since that time, many new and exciting cultivars have appeared on the market, and we now are able to produce stunning, full plants, with beautifully colored flowers and deep green leaves. With reasonable care, the poinsettia will be attractive in the home for weeks or months instead of days.

Hank Doong, head grower at our Lothian location, and Alfred Millard had some thoughts on differences in production now vs. our early crops. For the last ten years, Behnke’s has acquired unrooted poinsettia cuttings from Ecke and other growers, which are then potted in summer and continue to grow. Alfred says that back in the early `60’s, Behnke’s would receive poinsettia “mother” plants from Ecke in late winter. They were field grown plants shipped dormant in railway cars. In the summer, they were planted in the area at the Beltsville store where we now sell our azaleas. “When it was time to take cuttings, everyone jumped in to help. We would come in at 5:00 am, while it was still cool, and take cuttings with knives.”

“When I started in the early `70’s,” Hank said, “we were still trying new ways of keeping the plants short. This was before chemical growth retardants. One thing we tried was tying the stems in a knot-the stems on the older varieties were a lot more flexible than those of today’s. I don’t recall that it worked very well…”

Our production staff still comes in early or stays late to process the poinsettia cuttings in the cooler parts of the day. The plants are hand-pinched to promote branching, staked and tied over a several month period. Beginning in mid-November, they are shipped fresh to our stores daily throughout the holiday season. Even the modern varieties of poinsettias detest spending time in boxes and warehouses-they respond by drooping. So, like with tomatoes, freshness counts!!

by Larry Hurley,  Horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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