You may have just picked up a poinsettia in a shiny, foil-wrapped pot, but at Gardener’s World, two miles from Arizona Mills mall at the base of South Mountain, fleets of growers have been carefully tending the showy Christmastime flowers for months.
“We place our orders for next year’s poinsettias right after Christmas. They arrive as rooted cuttings. The trees and bushes that will eventually be about 4 feet tall get here in April. The rest are generally here by July or August, depending upon the size they’re going to be by the holidays,” says Sharon Petterson, co-owner of the family-run nursery and landscape supply company that hosts a poinsettia festival every December.
The 25,000 cuttings, which are shipped from California, are housed in a greenhouse the size of two football fields, where growers plant, water and “pinch” them by hand. (Pinching off foliage allows growers to shape the plants.)
“We take very tender care of them. It is truly a labor of love,” says Petterson, who, with her husband, Gary, started the festival more than 20 years ago.
Back then, the Gilbert couple, struck by the beauty of all the blooming plants in one place, wanted others to experience the feeling.
“We’d look at them all together in the greenhouse and say, 'This is spectacular! It’s too bad other people can’t see how beautiful this is.’ And then it occurred to us that we could invite people,” she says.
The thought has grown into a full-fledged Valley tradition, and it’s no wonder: Poinsettias are the number-one flowering potted plant in America, and they’re second only to Christmas trees when it comes to Americans’ favorite holiday plants.
“Many, many people have taken their Christmas or family photos here for years,” says Petterson. “The poinsettias are just stunning.”
For more on these kings of holiday decor, read on.
- Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and Central America.
- The Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl, and they used them to make a dye for textiles and cosmetics, and to make a medicine that treated fevers.
- In the 1820s, President John Adams appointed the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. An amateur botanist, Poinsett was enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he found in Mexico. He sent some of the plants back to his home in South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends.
- In nature, poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that can grow to 10 feet tall.
- The showy red (or white, pink or bi-colored) parts of poinsettias are not flower petals; they’re bracts, or modified leaves. The poinsettia’s flowers are in the center of the colorful bracts. The bracts draw pollinating insects to the tiny, inconspicuous flowers.
- Poinsettias are not poisonous, but they do contain a milky sap, or latex, that can irritate the skin. You shouldn’t eat any part of them.
- Today is National Poinsettia Day. The date marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett.
- There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available, including some with red, pink, white, peach, marbled and variegated bracts.
- $220 million worth of poinsettias are sold during the holiday season.
- Poinsettias are priced according to the number of blooms. The more blooms, the more expensive the plant.
- Seventy-four percent of Americans prefer red poinsettias; 8 percent prefer white; and 6 percent like pink.
- Eighty percent of poinsettias are purchased by women.
- Eighty percent of people who purchase poinsettias are 40 or older.
- Poinsettias are the best-selling flowering potted plant in the United States; in 2004, more than 61 million plants were sold.
Source: University of Illinois Extension’s “The Poinsettia Pages” and Paul Ecke Poinsettias in California.
23rd annual Poinsettia Festival
What: Thousands of the Christmas flowers are on display at this 25-acre nursery at the base of South Mountain. With plenty of reasons to ooh and aah, you’ll want to bring your camera.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, Saturday, Dec. 13 and Sunday, Dec. 14
Where: Gardener’s World, 3401 E. Baseline Road, Phoenix
Cost: Free admission, free parking and free tractor-driven wagon rides. There will be food and holiday items for sale, and 5 percent of poinsettia sales will benefit the Salvation Army’s Christmas dinner project.
Information: (602) 437-0700 or click here.
Picking a poinsettia
- Choose plants with bracts that are deeply and evenly colored. Avoid plants with green around the bract edges; it’s a sign the plant was shipped before it was mature.
- Select plants with stiff stems and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping.
- Look for plants with dense, plentiful leaves all the way to the soil line. An abundance of rich green leaves is a sign of good health.
- Avoid waterlogged soil, especially if the plant appears wilted; the combination could indicate irreversible root rot.
- Look at the flower clusters. Clusters that show little or no yellow pollen are fresher; plants that have shed their pollen are closer to dropping their bracts.
- Source: Paul Ecke Poinsettias and University of Illinois Extension’s “The Poinsettia Pages”
Caring for a poinsettia
- If it’s cold or windy outside on the day you buy the plant, protect it on the way to the car by slipping it into a roomy shopping bag. On a cold day, don’t leave it in the car while you run errands on the way home.
- Place your plant indoors, in indirect sunlight for at least six hours per day.
- Keep it in a room where the temperature remains between 68 and 70 degrees. Move the plant to a cooler room (around 55 degrees) at night, if possible.
- Place the plant away from drafts and heat. Don’t set it on a windowsill or near an exterior door, fireplace, heating vent or appliance.
- Water the plant when the soil feels dry to the touch. Make sure you’ve removed all paper, foil or plastic wrapping prior to watering. Water must be able to drain, because trapped water will cause root rot.
- Don’t place the plant outside. Poinsettias are sensitive to temperatures around 50 degrees and lower.
- Don’t fertilize your plant while it’s in bloom.
Source: Gardener’s World, Paul Ecke Poinsettias and University of Illinois Extension’s “The Poinsettia Pages”
The Legend of the Christmas Flower
According to Paul Ecke Poinsettias, the California ranch where 90 percent of all the flowering poinsettias in the world originate, the legend of the poinsettia goes like this:
Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, had nothing to present to the Christ child at Christmas Eve church services. As she walked to the chapel feeling sad and lowly, her cousin, Pedro, tried to console her.
“Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,” he said.
Unsure of what to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. The crude, scraggly bunch made her feel even more embarrassed, and she fought back tears as she entered the church.
As Pepita approached the altar, Pedro’s words resonated in her mind. She felt her spirit lift as she lay her meager bouquet at the nativity. Suddenly, the weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and the churchgoers believed they had seen a Christmas miracle.
From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, because they bloom each year during the Christmas season.