As early as the start of November, when banks, stores and churches prepare decorating for impending holidays, the distinctive poinsettia flower appears with its vibrant red blooms just above green leaves. It is a sure sign that Christmas is coming, but much is not known about the plant other than, for many, it tends to lose those bold, red leaves shortly after the New Year.
The flower originated from Mexico and Central America and was named after the botanist and first United States Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who first brought the plant to the United States in 1828 (ministers being a precursor to ambassadors, which became the title in 1896). Its actual name, Euphorbia Pulcherrima, roughly translates to "most beautiful."
Like so many Christmas symbols, the poinsettia was adopted into the holiday over time, with the incorporation presumed to begin in 16th century Mexico. The leaves are said to resemble the shape of a star, not unlike the star of Bethlehem followed by the Magi. The red color of the blooms are said to represent the blood of Jesus' future sacrifice.
The plant's holiday acceptance follows other adoptions of icons such as the Christmas tree, originally a staple of Pagan rites, and the modern design of Santa Claus, which is purported to have come about in various illustrations from the early 20th century. These illustrations pre-date Coca-Cola's use of the rotund, bearded Santa Claus, leaving the myth that Coke designed our modern perception of Santa as debunked.
Jack Rekemeier, owner of Rekemeier's Flower Shop, 116 North Ave., has been keeping busy with a stream of orders for holiday flowers, not just poinsettias. "(Poinsettias that have been sold are) approximately two hundred," he said. "We sell a lot to banks. We don't do many churches. The churches like to buy from the growers."
Tips for maintaining poinsettia plants through the holidays and beyond include careful attention to the conditions the plants will be under. Poinsettias thrive in indirect, natural daylight of at least six hours each day. Direct sunlight is not recommended, as it will cause the color to fade.
The temperature of the space where the plant will be should not exceed 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Excess heat and dry air will deplete natural moisture in the leaves, as will excessive drafts. If the temperature is controlled, the poinsettia bloom, or "bract," will maintain a bright color.
Poinsettias need moderately moist soil, so make sure the watering regimen ensures the soil is saturated. However, drainage is equally important so, to avoid root rot, remove the plant from decorative pots and make sure the draining water from the planter is discarded.
When the poinsettia is in bloom, it is not necessary to fertilize it. However, if you plan to maintain the plant, fertilizer product such as Osmocote can help maintain the foliage.
Owners of poinsettias always have the same question in mind: can I get the rich, red bracts back? The answer is "yes," but the process is complicated. "Twelve hours of daylight, twelve hours of darkness, starting in August up into November," Rekemeier says.
Other florists suggested that the dark cycle for the plant has to be rigorously maintained. If the light hits the plant, at any given stage of this process, the cycle must start all over again.
"It's not that poinsettias are that expensive that people can't replace them," Rekemeier says. "But I've heard of some people who have had them for three, four to five years."
Without the red bracts, the poinsettia can be a strong, healthy house plant, requiring slightly less maintenance, as most of the effort resides with holding onto the bloom. The crucial steps remain the balancing of watering and temperature control.
For sellers of the plant, one of the most important messages they want to send is that, while poinsettias are inedible, they are not by nature poisonous. It is not recommended that owners of pets with an inclination to chew on house plants have them around, but in otherwise normal situations the flowers are pretty and not at all harmful.
The staff of Rekemeier's Floral Shop busies themselves with rush orders for wreathes, grave blankets and gift arrangements, just as florists all around town are. It is Wednesday the 22nd and Christmas is approaching fast, but Rekemeier is concerned with how his seasonal business has changed due to supply vastly outnumbering the demand.
"I think, for the retail florist, there's been a big decrease (in sales)." He points to the various ways people can now make purchases, from department and grocery stores, and right from one's desktop via the Internet. "It's not the way it used to be, when I first started in the business, we were the only game in town. Supermarkets didn't sell it; Wal-Mart didn't sell it. I stopped in to Costco and there were hundreds of plants going out the door; hundreds of wreathes going out the door, and they're selling them at my cost. How is a local business to compete?"
The one advantage Rekemeier maintains is the source of his product – local growers. "(The retail markets) get a lot of their stuff out of Canada. Canadian product is less expensive than, normally, locally grown. It all depends on the growers around here. We have some growers that do a very, very good job, and some that are marginal. I think a couple of the growers I have are very, very good. I'm happy with what I have."
"Now, will I run out of poinsettias," Rekemeier wonders aloud. "Maybe. I've got three more days to find out."