Sitting between Red Glitter and Shimmer Surprise — red Christmas flowers in stereo — I'm having a hard time imagining that poinsettias were only recently considered potentially boring.
I say potentially boring, because no one likes to criticize a beloved tradition of long standing. And, actually, remembering the story of the poinsettia's discovery in 1828 by a French doctor's son in southern Mexico and his sending it to his hothouses in South Carolina is enough to bring back a sense of the exotic. Just think — in 18 years we'll be celebrating the 200th anniversary of his initial enchantment.
In the meantime, sitting between Red Glitter and Shimmer Surprise allows me to appreciate some of the subtle differences between varieties of poinsettias that I don't generally notice when I see seas of each variety grouped together.
Red Glitter, a variety being tried at Dutch's Greenhouse this year and a cousin to my favorite White Glitter, is a vintage-fireplace, Bing-Crosby red. Shimmer Surprise is bright Santa-Claus red. Red Glitter is streaked with cream, and Shimmer Surprise is more flecked with it. Each evokes a different frequency of Christmas feeling.
Speaking of which, Dutch's also carries a series of poinsettias called Christmas Feelings. Dutch's has put together combination pots of pink, red and white Christmas Feelings.
"It's OK," Dutch's grower Rachel Westmoreland says of this variety of poinsettia, meaning "not my favorite." The plants are quite beautiful, but to the poinsettia connoisseur, there are more favored plants to be had.
Dutch's grows its own poinsettias, and the size of them can vary a bit from year to year depending on the weather we've had. While last year's poinsettias were a bit shorter because of a cool summer in 2009, this year's plants are tall because, well, it will warm you up just to remember how hot August was. When Rachel sat a classic Prestige Red on the floor, I couldn't believe how it soared thigh-high and was wider than she was. These are Mother Nature's own steroids.
"One customer was saying, 'Did I order them that big?' " Rachel said.
Dutch's is carrying only a limited number of trial varieties, which it may or may not carry in greater numbers next year. Some years bring more new varieties than others, and this year didn't offer many, Rachel says, hoping for more next year.
But you don't necessarily need anything new when last year's sensation is still hot stuff. People continue to gulp down Ice Punch, the poinsettia with the stained-glass effect of white on cherry red. (Poinsettia coloration can vary depending on the temperature at which the plant is grown, Rachel says; hotter-grown white poinsettias, for example, are more of a true white, while cooler-grown whites are more yellow. White and pink can similarly vary on the same variety.) Dutch's has been selling poinsettias at Botanica's Illuminations on Friday and Saturday nights, and Ice Punch has been selling out.
"I never saw one like that before" is what Rachel hears from customers.
Freedom Peppermint is another variety that Rachel is trying this year. It's a creamy peach color with flecks.
"My mom loved it. The bracts are just amazingly big: You see the color, not really the leaves." The bracts — the colorful part of the poinsettia (the flowers are the little yellow centers) —also are different because they droop.
"That's just how Freedom grows," Rachel said. Sometimes I'll look at one and think it's wilted, but that's how it grows. It just weeps."
Meanwhile, Polar Bear White is a new trial that has a bright white bract, and the bracts hold together tightly, not falling about, for better form. These are not the particulars that you and I might notice, but a grower knows.
The leaves are also another variable. The aforementioned Red Glitter has very dark green leaves. A new poinsettia this year at Dutch's, Tapestry, is a shorter red that has a variegated leaf, green with a creamy yellow edge. The red is more of a pink red than a fire-engine.
Speaking of glitter, you can continue to get poinsettias sprinkled with it, and you can get poinsettias spray-painted at some garden centers, including Johnson's. You can also combine poinsettias with other plants. At Dutch's, for example, red poinsettias alternate with purple plectranthus on one table. I can see potting up a fresh dish garden in December with whatever blooms and contrasting foliage you can find in garden center greenhouses. Oh, what fun.
When it comes to caring for poinsettias, "one of the best things you can do is to stick your finger about an inch into the plant's soil every day," says Ward Upham, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. "Poinsettias are rather finicky about soil moisture, and this will help you water only when the time is right."
One of my poinsettias sits here in pretty red foil, but that can't last, because when you water the plant, water gets trapped inside the foil.
"Never let a poinsettia sit in water," Upham says. "In fact, if the container comes wrapped with foil, you'll need to remove that cover or poke holes in its bottom. You'll probably want to place the poinsettia in a sink before watering, too. Watering to the drainage point can be messy."
Upham gives these other ways to extend a poinsettia's flowering days:
* Keep the daytime temperatures at 65 to 75, nighttime temperatures a bit cooler. (This may require moving poinsettias away from windows at night.) Temperatures above 75 degrees shorten bloom life. Those below 60 contribute to root rot.
* Don't allow the plants to touch a cold window and keep them out of hot or cold drafts.
* Place poinsettias where the light is bright for as many as six hours a day. Indirect natural sunlight is best. Unless diffused by a sheer curtain, direct sunlight can cause fading.