Each holiday seems to have certain colors associated with it. For Easter, it’s the pastel colors – spring greens, pale yellows, pinks, and lavenders. At Thanksgiving we think of golds and oranges – the colors of turning leaves.
Christmas is unabashedly red – intense red – the right color to warm us at this time of year when nights are long and dark.
And what better plant at Christmas is there than the poinsettia, a plant native to Mexico. The poinsettia is unique in that it only flowers at the time of year when the nights are longest and the days are shortest. Growers refer to it as a “short day photoperiod crop.”
We are so infatuated with the poinsettia that it is the best selling plant by far, with 22.5 potted poinsettias bought each holiday season. The poinsettia flower is actually a cluster of tiny yellow flowers in the center of a surround of bright red bracts – a specialized leaf surrounding the actual flower.
Growing poinsettias is big business. Started as cuttings and grown in hot houses where temperature and light can be carefully controlled, poinsettias are doused with a variety of chemicals beginning with fungicides. Water and fertilizers are applied in measured amounts. As the plant matures, a chemical plant growth regulator assures it will be the compact plant, dense with the colorful bracts, which we see in every supermarket.
In Santa Barbara, where winters are mild and summer days cool, we can grow poinsettias in our gardens. And double poinsettias at that!
Pictured is a particularly glorious plant growing in a garden in town where attention to the garden is casual at best. Though in its native Mexico, poinsettias commonly grow to 15 feet, this lovely specimen in Santa Barbara is at least 12 feet tall and as wide.
The poinsettia is named for the 19th century US ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Pointsett, who first introduced in to North America. If bright red seems overwhelming in its abundance, you can buy white or pink poinsettias varieties, too.