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The plant that says, 'Christmas'

Rachel Westmoreland caught me off guard this week talking about the new crop of velvety poinsettias blanketing the shelves at Dutch's Greenhouse. To most of us, poinsettias show up for the holidays from someplace down South. After all, they were discovered by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in that country in 1826, and he brought them to the States.

But Rachel grows Dutch's poinsettias right here in Wichita, while we're busy with our tomatoes and petunias and mowing. She relishes the horticultural equivalent of baking bread from scratch, and then helping customers select their plants at, as the carol goes, the most wonderful time of the year.

Most summers, there's no problem raising the poinsettias. It's tropical-hot here. Usually. But not this past summer.

"It's a challenge to grow poinsettias when it's that cool in the summer," Rachel said. "They come into color a little earlier, and the plant is a little shorter. You don't have all that heat earlier to get all the height."

Rachel grows 17 varieties and has the grower's discerning eye to point out differences the rest of us, overwhelmed by the sheer variety of colors and numbers, might not notice:

* Form. The variety Maren is a salmony pink that has a beautiful form, full and even on the top.

* Leaf color. Mars White has a darker green foliage so it makes the creamy white bract really stand out. (The poinsettia's "flowers" are actually bracts. The true flowers are the yellow centers inside each cluster of bracts.)

* Shape of the bract. Bracts on the Mars varieties have an oval as opposed to a sharp tip for a softer look. "It's getting popular," Rachel said. You can buy them in red, white or pink, or buy a combination pot of all three together.

Shimmer Surprise, a red poinsettia speckled with white, was the hot new poinsettia last year at Dutch's. This year, Ice Punch is expected to be.

"It's pretty cool because it comes out pink and then it starts getting white in the middle," Rachel said. "It's supposed to look like ice in there almost, like an ice cube."

That is hot. I mean cold. I mean...

Shimmer Surprise sold out last year. I can see why. What people love, Rachel told me, is that some bracts get solid, clean blocks of red and white side by side, almost like the plant has a contemporary sensibility.

I love it, too, but tradition still wins out for many poinsettia buyers. Solid red continues to be the most popular seller at Dutch's, and comes in early and late varieties depending on what point in the season you decide to buy.

"If you're shopping early and let's say you're having a party right after Thanksgiving, you'll want an early poinsettia. If you're shopping for one right before Christmas — like the churches we deliver to on Christmas Eve, they get the later ones. That way it'll last a little bit longer."

There's about a two-week difference between the two, she said.

Many people wait until nearer to Christmas before buying poinsettias, Rachel said.

"I have a lot of people who think they're going to kill it before Christmas. They like them fresh that way. They say, 'This way I won't kill it before Christmas.' People get so busy at the holidays that I think sometimes the poinsettias get neglected."

So what do people do that is so bad to these plants?

"Number 1 — they put it by a cold window. It gets too cold. Or too wet or too dry. I probably have people who drown them more. If they get too dry, they lose their bracts. When it starts to dry out a little, water. It doesn't need a lot of water in your house."

And some people trot out an old excuse: "I'd like to buy one, but they're poisonous."

For the record: Poinsettias are not poisonous.

After red, white is the most popular poinsettia color of Dutch's customers.

"What most people call yellow is white. If you grow white hotter it'll go white, if you grow it cooler in the greenhouse it will be more yellow," Rachel said. She grows hers somewhere in the middle.

Dutch's also carries a couple of burgundy varieties and several pinks.

"I have a lot of churches going to white and burgundy because it matches their decor better than bright red," Rachel said.

Some other garden centers, including Johnson's, spray-paint some of their poinsettias a variety of colors (often with a sprinkle of sparkles) to match all kinds of decor.

"They come in so many different colors now it's a lot of fun," Rachel said.

I declared my love for White Glitter, a red and green poinsettia splattered white, with distinctly cut edges. It looks very Christmasy because of the green alongside the red on some of the leaves, and somehow charmingly retro.

"That's still your favorite?" Ron Marcum, Dutch's container-gardener extraordinaire, asked me. It's sad when a garden center employee knows your favorites better than you do. I looked back in The Eagle archives and found that I'd declared the same fondness for White Glitter four Christmases ago.

At least, like a red poinsettia, I'm consistent.

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