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Poinsettias: the holiday plant with color and style.

AS SUMMER WANES, MOST GARDENERS ARE GATHERING the last of the tomatoes and dreaming of fall, cool nights, and laying the garden to rest, but for commercial plant growers and those in the nursery trade, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. While it is hot and sultry outside, commercial growers are in the greenhouses potting poinsettias. Because it takes approximately 120 days for a poinsettia to root and grow into a marketable size, the poinsettias we enjoy during the holidays were begun on a now-forgotten summer's day.

The poinsettia is a native flowering shrub of Mexico and was much admired by Montezuma, the last king of the Aztec Empire. In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolinian who was also an amateur botanist and horticulturist, traveled south of the border to serve as the first ambassador to Mexico. While in Mexico, he became fascinated with the plant Euphorbia pulcherrima. Ambassador Poinsett brought the plant home to the United States, and it eventually was renamed poinsettia (Poinsettia pulcherrima) in his honor. Thus, a tradition was begun, and today, the poinsettia is commercially grown in all 50 states, and it is the best-selling potted plant in the country.

The poinsettias of Old Mexico were flame red, but through the years, horticulturists, not content with just plain, ordinary red, have hybridized this plant so that it comes in a variety of colors to complement almost any decor. Traditionally, poinsettias have been wrapped in colorful, glitzy foil paper and decorated with a bow, but do not limit yourself to this. Poinsettias are quite stunning when combined with other potted plants in large containers or urns, and they are excellent cut flowers.

Poinsettias, as cut flowers, can be used in floral arrangements, on mantels, wreaths, and numerous other creative ways. Poinsettias do have a milky sap, so the stems need to be sealed by holding them over a candle flame. The stems should then be placed in warm water with floral preservative to condition. Cut poinsettias should last about one week in water.

There is always a temptation to use a poinsettia to brighten a dark corner in the den, but, like so many houseplants, poinsettias prefer a bright spot. Poinsettias should be kept out of drafts, and these tropical plants prefer a room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees. Only water a poinsettia when the soil is dry to the touch, and do not let the plant sit in water. If the poinsettia is wrapped in decorative paper, water with ice cubes. The ice cubes will slowly melt and be absorbed by the soil.

When selecting a poinsettia, select one with dark green foliage and bracts that are completely colored. The actual flower of the poinsettia is the small yellow center, while the bracts (modified leaves) are the real show stoppers. Check the small, inconspicuous flower in the center. If it is green or red-tipped, it will last for several weeks. If the center is yellow with pollen, the plant is mature and will probably be short-lived.

Mark Terkanian, owner of Natchez Trace Greenhouses in Kosciusko and one of the largest wholesale growers of poinsettias in the region, recommends that buyers look for plants with sturdy stems, large bracts, and good keeping quality. Some of his tried and true varieties that meet his standards are Prestige, Christmas Day Red, Jubilee Red, and Polar Bear (white). For the adventuresome, when an ordinary red poinsettia will just not do, there are poinsettia trees, poinsettia roses, and novelty poinsettias in a variety of hues.

Mississippi has many nurseries that grow poinsettias, but schools and residential facilities for adults and children also grow poinsettias to sell. At Baddour Center, a home for adults with intellectual disabilities in Senatobia, about 6,000 poinsettias are grown each year. They sell poinsettias to seventy churches and sell to buyers from three states. The residents help with this operation and earn a paycheck and gain a sense of accomplishment. Their hard work and the funds raised from the sale of poinsettias contribute to this wonderful philanthropic cause. Their annual poinsettia sale has proven to be one of their largest fundraisers.

At Palmer Home for Children in Columbus, more than 3,000 poinsettias will be for sale for the holiday season. The children of Palmer Home are very instrumental in seeing that this is a successful venture. In order to work in the greenhouses, the children must fill out an application and interview for the job. Even though they are compensated for their work, it is not an easy job. Poinsettias require a great deal of nurturing; therefore, the young people are at the greenhouses at 5:30 a.m. and return at dusk. The poinsettias at Palmer Home raise funds, while instilling a sense of self worth and a strong work ethic in its young people.

The poinsettia has been popular since Mr. Poinsett brought it to the United States, and its popularity just keeps growing. In Mississippi, growing and selling this Christmas flower is a big business. It is good for the economy and good for the soul. A poinsettia is a perfect gift to give a gardener or the horticulturally challenged, and I personally do not think one can have too many. Poinsettias brighten our homes, offices, churches, and hearts.

story by margaret gratz
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Title Annotation:garden
Author:Gratz, Margaret
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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