Photos by Ryan Benoit

Pick Your Poinsettia: Inside the (Secretly) Diverse World of a Holiday Icon

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Whenever one of our favorite “plant guys” sends us an email saying a crop is at its best and most abundant and that we should come see it, we drop what we’re doing and head for the action.

That’s exactly what we did when Kalim Owens, sales manager and part owner of Weidner’s Gardens, tipped us off about the garden center’s 30,000 poinsettia plants that are spectacular right now. The company grew every single one of them, started from cuttings, on its property and in about 30 diverse varieties.

Can you believe it’s been over three months since we were first marveling at those teensy poinsettia cuttings in the greenhouses?

A mid-August cutting.

A cutting from our visit in mid-August.

The Encinitas, CA, shop was even more colorful yesterday when we visited; at the gate, a thick stole of Pyrostegia vine was in orange bloom. Then we made our way to the poinsettia section, where we were dazzled by a glowing sea of Euphorbia pulcherrima in a diversity of colors and textures that we didn’t know existed. There were mottled watercolors, velvety oxblood, oakleaf silhouettes and tall roseate shapes.

Having not bought one in years, we were surprised by the authentic sense of cheer these poinsettias exuded. Their quirky, whimsical variations — absent from the flowers sold at big-box stores — had us mentally assigning pots to different parts of our house.

And visions of dinner parties danced in our heads…

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The Sparkling Punch variety (left) offers a change of pace from classic scarlet poinsettias.

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“This is one year when we can say we don’t have a single bad poinsettia,” says Weidner’s co-founder Evelyn Weidner, above. “It’s a milestone. There are a million things that can go wrong, and often do.”

“When I started in the plant business there was red, white and pink,” says Kalim, who’s now in his 23rd season growing poinsettias. The offbeat variegations, marbling and ruffled textures we now see “only became available in the last 10 to 15 years.”

These varieties carry irresistible names like Sparkling Punch (white and light pink variegated, with oak leaf-shaped foliage), Carousel Dark Red (ruffled, scarlet, Victorian), Mars Pink (eye-popping bubblegum), and Prestige (deep red and green that morph into tartan in your periphery). These flowers were lovingly brought to life by head grower and part owner Oliver Storm, who, in collaboration with 15 full-time staffers, regulates the plants’ temperature, irrigation and stem pinching during the growing process.

1 - Red Carousel, 2 - Marble Star, 3 - White Glitter, 4 - Chianti, 5 - Orange Spice, 6 - Infinity Marble, 7 - Monet, 8 - Red Glitter, 9 - Icy Crystal, 10 - Tapestry, 11 - Freedom, 12 - Ruby Frost, 13 - White Star, 14 - Mars Pink, 15 - Sparkling Punch

1. Red Carousel 2. Marble Star 3. White Glitter 4. Chianti 5. Orange Spice 6. Infinity Marble, 7. Monet 8. Red Glitter 9. Icy Crystal 10. Tapestry 11. Freedom 12. Ruby Frost 13. White Star 14. Mars Pink 15. Sparkling Punch. Which one is your favorite?

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A velvety horde of Marble Star poinsettias.

“Very few folks come in and say, ‘I’m looking for a Red Glitter,’ ” Kalim says. “They come in and they think they’re looking for a red poinsettia and then they see that —” he points to a specimen that looks like it’s been dusted with white confetti — “and they say, ‘Okay, I have to try one of those. I’ve never seen it before — it’s unique, different…’ ”

Weidner’s, he adds, is one of the few growers that produces “just about every size and about every style that there is: from two-inch pots to large tubs and trees.”

Too soon for the Christmas flower, you say? Well, buckle up — because this week Weidner’s will be shipping out thousands of poinsettias to its wholesale clients, including malls and shopping centers (like the 2,300 destined for Terra Bella in Huntington Beach), and even the Queen Mary in Long Beach. That said, Weidner’s is considered a “small” grower.

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Prestige, in the large pots and hanging overhead, is a mid-season variety that easily lends itself to different sizes. The taller plants were planted back in April, whereas the poinsettias in the four- and six-inch pots were planted in July and August.

“A lot of my early business is shopping-center-oriented,” Kalim says, “because Santa comes right before or right after Thanksgiving.” Churches order their poinsettias the latest — as far along as the 21st of December. On the retail side, customers come in hoping to add flair to tabletops, patios, parties, desks and fireplaces.

The most popular style by far is the “six-inch pinched” — that is, a poinsettia that’s been pinched at a certain stage of growth to encourage multiple blooms, and that’s planted in a six-inch pot. Plants that haven’t been pinched are called “straight up”: one plant, one stem, one very large flower; a few might be planted together in the same pot for a very tall, forest-y effect. The straight-up/“single stem” style is the one florists tend to prefer; pinched varieties are what you’ll find at grocery and hardware stores.

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Kalim Owens holds a six-inch pinched Freedom (left) and a straight-up Freedom (right).

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Three straight-up styles are planted in the same pot for a tall, forest-y effect. Each stem grows one large flower.

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“Pinched” styles are the overwhelming marketplace favorite, pinched by hand in the early growing stages to encourage multiple blooms.

How did this annual scarlet wave begin? It started with the Ecke family, which is single-handedly responsible for making E. pulcherrima the flower of the holiday — and also the bestselling potted plant in the U.S.

After selling roadside flowers in Hollywood in the early 20th century, Paul Ecke Sr. moved south to Encinitas in 1923 to establish Ecke Ranch. That’s where his son Paul Ecke Jr. would start promoting poinsettias as cut flowers around Christmas, as the plant tends to bloom in December and January.

“Then Paul Ecke started breeding them for compact growth, a long flowering period, and uniform size as a potted plant,” Kalim says. “He really is responsible for the poinsettia being recognized as the Christmas plant because he promoted it and grew it and bred it and made it happen.”

At the peak of the Eckes’ influence, up to 90 percent of poinsettias sold in the U.S. originated on the Encinitas ranch. Last year, the Eckes sold the family business, sending chills throughout industry.

“How can I equate it?” Kalim says. “If the Green Bay Packers were no longer a football team.”

But the influence lives on. “Ecke genetics” are present in just about all the varieties offered by Weidner’s. Those good genes are in the spotlight this season: “This is one year when we can say we don’t have a single bad poinsettia,” says Weidner’s co-founder Evelyn Weidner. “It’s a milestone. There are a million things that can go wrong, and often do.”

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The Monet is an ‘airbrushed pastel pink’ color.

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The Peppermint Twist was pinched at a later stage so it would grow to be a mini tree.

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Winter Rose mini trees.

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Snowcap.

Quality cuttings and mild Santa Anas conspired to make this year’s crop “top quality,” Kalim says. “We almost always have three to four Santa Ana events in the fall — this year we only had a couple, and they were very moderate, here for a day or two and then passed on. That lends itself to a really even temperature, and not the big swings that make poinsettias cranky.”

Which brings us to care. Poinsettias:

- like full sun

- dislike being jostled (and thus don’t ship well; Kalim strongly recommends getting yours from a local grower)

- resent getting hit with drafts (so keep them away from the radiator)

- prefer moderate, stable temperatures

- prefer soil that’s moist but not waterlogged

Customers have reported their poinsettias looking good through March. Aside from the wintry color, “I think people like the challenge of keeping them looking good,” Kalim says.

It’s important to note that the bright parts we call the “flowers” aren’t actually flowers; they’re modified leaves known as bracts. (Same story with bougainvillea and dogwoods.) When a poinsettia’s inflorescence (known as its cyathia) dies away, the colorful bract can still endure. A mature, healthy poinsettia bush can reach up to 15 feet tall!

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The first leaf below the pink bracts has a “blush.”

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The bright parts we call the “flowers” aren’t actually flowers; they’re modified leaves known as bracts. A poinsettia’s inflorescence (known as its cyathia) includes anthers and glands.

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True to its euphorbia heritage, poinsettias “bleed” a white, irritating latex. The persistent myth that poinsettias are poisonous is just that; the plant is only mildly toxic to pets  — not that anyone should be eating them.

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A poinsettia bush towers over the garden center’s pond.

Want to see the flowers and the growing process for yourself? This weekend, November 23-24, Weidner’s is offering free guided tours that will take you behind the scenes of the garden center’s poinsettia production. Click here for more info.

Below, we do our own exploration — of varieties that include classic cardinal red, an unexpected romantic ruffle, and mini-trees that are lean and funky and a bunch of adjectives you wouldn’t normally associate with the species.

No, these are not your grandfather’s poinsettias. —TH

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Now to the greenhouses…

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This Winter Rose is a “mid-season” plant, meaning it will be ready — color-wise, size-wise — to ship right after Thanksgiving.

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A bigger, more vigorous variety of the Winter Rose, these Renaissance poinsettias will be sold as cut flowers. (We took home a pot of them!)

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The ruffled Red Carousel (left) has a romantic, ‘antique-y’ look.

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This “personal poinsettia” comes in a two-inch pot.

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Time for a field trip within a field trip! The Weidner’s entrance is alight in Pyrostegia vines.

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We hopped in a golf cart to visit Weidner’s second set of greenhouses down the street to see more poinsettias, and a certain ‘underrated’ winter flower…

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Freedom poinsettias in red and white. This relatively hardier variety is able to withstand the colder temperature on the ground. It’s a good cultivar for outdoors: “My landscape guys like it,” Kalim says. “If you say ‘tough’ and ‘poinsettias’ in the same sentence, it’s Freedom.”

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We veered off our poinsettia path to check out the cyclamen, another cool-weather bloomer.

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We’d also like to add these hot-pink cyclamen to our holiday mix. The more vibrant, the merrier.

  • http://www.missioterra.com/ Missio Terra

    Wow! Absolutely beautiful! We just bought our poinsettia 2 days go from a local grower as well. Thank you for this post.

    • http://thehorticult.com/ The Horticult

      Thanks for reading, Missio Terra! So cool about your poinsettia. We’re looking forward to seeing how everyone’s doing their holiday flowers this year…

  • Brenda Somers

    Hope to be able to find a Winter Rose or Peppermint Twist this year. Have brought back 2, I guess, Freedom poinsettias this year. One has 17 blossoms the other has 8. Both were outside and neglected until I repotted them in August and fed and watered them. Being in SW FL the climate & light seem to be ideal. Would love to have a hedge of them next year in our front patio and a major display in the back by the pool.