Holiday Guests

Each year, those plants that are too loved to be lost to winter are tenderly collected from the backyard or balcony and brought indoors. They congregate in our window sills or among the mugs left out on the kitchen table, and on cold, grey days we welcome their company. Come December we invite a couple of holiday guests to our growing indoor winter garden.

The bright red poinsettia is one of these visitors, and it’s a strange one to have received this honor. In the United States, the poinsettia is so closely associated with Christmas and wintertime that its own natural habitat seems to us like a mismatch. Poinsettias come from Mexico and need to be treated like the tropical plants they are. They prefer a hot, wet environment, so they should be kept away from drafty windows and misted regularly. It’s a lot of trouble to make the bracts turn red like that, and that task is usually left to the experts. But anyone who’s got patience and a willingness to fail can have a crack at getting this year’s plants to redden again next Christmas.

It’s a complicated process: After the season’s over, the leaves will fall. When that happens, cut the stems down to just a few inches high and keep the plant pretty dry and out of the sun. In early May, freshen up the compost and put the plant in a new pot. After repotting, water thoroughly and regularly whenever the soil starts to feel dry. When new shoots appear, choose the four or five strongest and remove the rest so they don’t have to compete for space. Now the poinsettias will grow, but they’ll only turn red again if you carefully manipulate the light. The last week of September is game time. The plant must be kept in complete darkness for 14 hours each day. To make that happen, you have to cover the poinsettia with a dark plastic bag from early evening til morning every day for eight weeks. Then treat it like normal again. If all goes well, your poinsettias will be red again in time for Christmas.

Since the early 1900s, one family has dominated the poinsettia industry by mastering the plant’s complicated cultivation. The Ecke family developed a way to grow a bushier, more attractive plant and kept their technique top secret for for decades. In the 1980s, a graduate student named  John Dole cracked the code and published his findings. They finally had some competition after that, but to this day they rule the poinsettia industry. The Eckes are also responsible for the popularization of the poinsettia as a Christmas plant in the United States. They began referring to it as “the Christmas flower” and went to great lengths to send them to popular magazines and television shows to be featured during the holidays. Paul Ecke Jr. was so determined to have the plants featured in women’s magazines that when they told him that their holiday photoshoots took place months ahead of time, Ecke Jr. specially cultivated a new group of poinsettias that would bloom out-of-season in summertime.

If you’re one of the people that brings these living decorations into your home each year, you don’t have to be bothered by the absurdly early Christmas displays pushing into your peripherals from the moment Halloween is over. The live poinsettias will only blush red for this brief season, so when they start to pop up in the grocery store, and the fir trees are riding around town on the roofs of the family cars, those who take them in know that Christmastime has truly arrived.

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