Gerald Klingaman, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of horticulture at the University of Arkansas. He is now working full time as Operations Director at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. He gardens in Fayetteville.

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From Jungle to Jingle
by Gerald Klingaman, Ph.D.    

'Freedom Red' Poinsettia

As the Christmas season draws ever nearer, homes around the world take on the decorative trappings of the season. The symbolism associated with Christmas is deep, rich and ever-changing. Icons of the season – for example the Christmas tree – have been adapted from more primitive cultures. Probably neither a Druid chieftain nor Martin Luther would recognize the modern Christmas tree, resplendent with its flashing lights and bobbles made in China, as having evolved from their earlier traditions. The same can be said for the poinsettia that has come a long way from the jungles of Mexico. 

Poinsettia History

The association of poinsettias with the Christmas season has been gradual, since being introduced from Mexico in 1829. Introduced by a Southern boy, South Carolinian Joel Poinsett (1779–1851), the poinsettia was picked up while he served as the ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Poinsett was a politician who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms before winning his appointment as an ambassador during the one term presidency of John Quincy Adams. In 1827 Adams instructed the Treasury Department to send out a document to all U.S. naval captains and consular offices around the world to collect whatever plants and seeds they might deem valuable to American farmers, since the Department of Agriculture was not established for another 35 years.

The fate of newly introduced plants was somewhat in limbo, for with Adams no longer in the White House, the botanic garden he was planning to build was never completed. But Poinsett was able to keep the tropical plants going and by about 1833 got them in the hands of Robert Buist, a Philadelphia nurseryman who offered them in his catalogue up until at least the time of the Civil War. In 1846, using the £100,000 bequeathed by English chemist James Smithson, Poinsett was one of the men who guided the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution and championed its role as a repository of all manner of Americana. Two of his legacies were the poinsettia and the Smithsonian.

The true flowers on this poinsettia flower are fully open.

The poinsettia is a 10 to 15 foot tall shrub in its native Mexico; so keeping it small has always been a challenge. In the 19th century it was grown either as a large conservatory plant like many of the other “stove plants” of the Victorian era or as a cut flower. In the 1890s florist Peter Henderson reports that thousands of heads are sold in New York each holiday at $25 for 100 stems. At that time the poinsettia was unbranched and produced a solitary, foot wide, red head. The red portion of the flower is actually a set of modified leaves called bracts, with the true flowers the yellow nubs in the center of the bracts.

Poinsetta Growers

Poinsettia Care and Feeding

Selection: Choose plants that are full and symmetrical and that have good green leaves. A lot of yellow leaves mean the plant has gotten dry and the leaf drop will likely continue. Look for plants in which the true flowers are just opening and beginning to shed pollen. Avoid plants that have dropped their yellow flowers or have bracts that are beginning to sag downward.

Care: When you get the plant home, take it to the sink and give it a good drink.  Allow it to drain and then lift the plant to get a feel for the weight of a fully watered plant. Lifting the plant is a better method of judging water needs than the time-honored finger test. Dry-to-the-touch may mean that almost all of the water is gone from the root ball. Poinsettias drop leaves when they get too dry. Locate the plant in the home in a bright, warm room but avoid fireplaces and heater vents. You will find that different plants use water at different rates depending on their location in your home and the characteristics of the individual plant. Fertilizer will not be needed.

Is it Poisonous? Despite extensive research and a hefty promotion campaign by the industry, the rumor that the poinsettia is poisonous still persists. There has never been a confirmed case of poinsettia poisoning in humans, or in lab rats so far as I know. This rumor springs from a single, sudden death in Hawaii a century ago that was never even investigated, let alone validated. The FDA lists poinsettia as a “non-edible ornamental,” and along with the other plants of that category we grow, it makes sense to keep it out of the reach of toddlers.

Reblooming: Keeping poinsettias over to the next season and reblooming them is a challenge some gardeners can’t resist. If you choose this option, treat the plant as you would any houseplant, and when spring arrives, move it outdoors. Repot the plant into a slightly larger container and then cut it back about half way to encourage new growth. Fertilize every two weeks with a houseplant fertilizer. On August 1, cut the plant back again with an eye towards achieving a plant of the desired size. Following this pruning, it will make about a foot of new growth until flowers begin forming. Now comes the tricky part. From September 25 onwards, the plant must have at least 12 hours of complete darkness every night or flowering will be delayed or stopped. Any stray light will disrupt flowering. Additionally, the nighttime temperature must be above 62 F with the plant receiving good bright conditions during the day. If you can provide these conditions, the plant should bloom on schedule.

The Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) as we know it today is largely the work of one family, the Ecke’s of Encinitas, California. Beginning shortly before the World War I, Albert Ecke, began growing poinsettias outside in southern California and selling them as cut flowers. As his market grew the family began shifting emphasis towards providing new plant starts for pot-plant growers. Since World War II pot plant production has completely dominated the poinsettia marketplace with few cut poinsettias even grown.

Today, the company is in its forth generation, with 75 percent of the 67 million poinsettias grown propagated from Ecke stock. However, they were not the only innovators in poinsettia growing. One of the most dramatic changes to occur in the poinsettia world was the development of the long-lasting, self-branching forms during the 1960s. Before that, poinsettias were grown as unbranched plants with a single large, terminal bract and it was hard to keep them alive for more than a few weeks in the home. But with the introduction of the Hegg series in the early 60s, pinched plants with five to seven blooms appeared. The Mikkelsen selections added in-home durability to the plant. Modern selections combine freedom to branch and the long holding characteristics.

Branching is not a natural characteristic of poinsettias for the plant is blessed with strong apical dominance. Plants with strong apical dominance produce a hormone, auxin, which diffuses from the terminal bud and suppresses the growth of axillary buds below it. But, it turns out there’s this disease. The organism is a primitive disease known as a mycoplasma which, from an evolutionary standpoint, resides somewhere between a virus and a bacterium. Mycoplasma diseases produce membranes surrounding their inner workings but they lack any real cell wall integrity that gives them a definite shape so they are a kind of amorphous blob if viewed with an electron microscope. On the lethality scale, this disease organism is relatively benign but it does interfere with hormone metabolism. When breeders develop a new poinsettia cultivar, they then graft it onto an infected plant to intentionally inoculate the new selection with the branching organism.

The Changing Colors

About the time the self-branching poinsettias began appearing, colored forms also began to show up in greenhouses around the country. Developing new poinsettia color variant is not as straightforward as one would assume. When two poinsettias are hybridized, regardless of their color, the offspring will be red. The color variants are mutants, freaks of nature called chimeras.

It is estimated that for every million cell divisions, there will be one cell that is incorrectly copied and a mutation will develop. If that mutation is in the growing point of the plant the possibility exists that the genetic change could result in a useful change. Being impatient, breeders can’t afford to wait around for natural mutations to occur so they increase the odds by using X-rays, mutagenic chemicals and sometimes, even doses of radiation to zap the plants and force a mutation. The poinsettia bract is composed of layers just like our skin. In red poinsettias all layers of the bract have red pigments. In white poinsettias the layers are white. Pink poinsettias have a red inner layer overlain with a white outer layer. Some of the newer flecked forms have the “jumping genes” that are randomly dispersed across the surface of the bract and produce patches of contrasting color on the leaf surface.

‘Santa Clause Marble’ is one of the multicolored poinsettias with each bract different than the others around it.

‘Strawberries ’N Cream’ is a small novelty poinsettia unlike anything you’ve seen before.

In the Trade Today

‘Freedom Red’ is an early season red with large bracts.

‘Winter Rose Red’ is a novelty plant with potential that may extend the sales period for the poinsettia, which, so far, has never been able to break free from its association with just the Christmas season.

The poinsettia marketplace has increased dramatically in the last decade with over 130 selections available including of a number of new, unique colors and forms. While red still dominates – about 75 percent of the plants sold are traditional red selections – the novelty forms have been gaining ground. The most popular poinsettia today is the big-bracted redhead called ‘Freedom Red’ – an Ecke introduction that has been around since the early 1980s. It comes into color about mid November when most poinsettias begin appearing in the stores. It’s main flaw, aside from the fact that the plant patent has expired and the propagators no longer get royalty on every cutting sold, is that the lower limbs tend to break off when the plant is sleeved for shipping. A new bright red mid-season plant with deep green leaves called ‘Prestige’ flowers about a week later and solves both of these problems. ‘Red Splendor’ is a good late season selection. Most greenhouse growers grow three to six different red cultivars to ensure they will have plants at the peak of perfection from mid November until Christmas day.

Perhaps the most interesting novelty poinsettias are the Christmas rose poinsettias that are available in red, pink, white and speckled forms. Instead of the traditional flat red head, these have rounded, snowball shaped bracts that look about as much like a rose as you could expect a poinsettia to do. They have been a hot item, allowing growers to experiment with unique ways of marketing these very different plants. There is even talk of marketing them in the spring as an alternative for Easter lilies and hydrangeas.

The most interesting new poinsettia color to appear is purple, which in reality is more maroon than purple. ‘Plum Pudding’ is a big, gawky kind of plant with bracts that color late in the season and are often smaller than expected. Its competitor, ‘Cortez Burgundy’ is as fragile as an eggshell but with larger, darker maroon bracts. In a customer preference study I conducted, ‘Plum Pudding’ was ranked near the bottom in overall popularity of the 25 kinds consumers evaluated, but for people who liked something different; it was their first choice. As newer and better purple forms appear, this color will take its place alongside the pinks, whites and pastels that are available. Hot pink selections such as ‘Amazone Peppermint,’ ‘Freedom Coral’ and sugar-frosted ‘Monet Twilight, are bright, cheery plants that appeal to guys, but everyone knows guys are not to be trusted when it comes to choosing colors.

The “broken” poinsettias and the variegated, cultivars such as ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘White Glitter,’ ‘Silverstar’ and other novelty forms of the same ilk are interesting, but they appeal more to the person looking for something different. People that buy a number of poinsettias usually select several reds and then place one of the variegated or broken forms in the center for interesting contrast.

From Kentucky Gardener Issue I Volume IX. Photography by Gerald Klingaman Ph. D.


Posted: 12/12/12   RSS | Print


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