18 Nov Pick your poinsettia: Inside the (secretly) diverse world of a holiday icon
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.
It’s been over three months since we were first marveling at those teensy cuttings of poinsettia (pronunciation: poyn-SEH-tee-uh) in the greenhouses.
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…
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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
– as far as how often to water poinsettia, you’ll have to go by feel; they 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.
Wondering about poinsettia and cats? The persistent myth that poinsettias are poisonous is just that; the plant is only mildly toxic to pets like cats and dogs — not that anyone should be eating them.
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!
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