Passion for poinsettias:
The story behind these gorgeous winter blooms
We meet a man with a mission
My mother-in-law loves a good poinsettia. Christmas trees she can take or leave, but the warming glow of those crimson flowers makes her holiday season. Before the botanically knowledgeable among you protest, yes, they’re not actually flowers, they’re bracts.
The poinsettia belongs to the euphorbia family - its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima – and this genus generally has this arrangement of bracts with tiny insignificant yellow false flowers in the centre, known as cyathia. The bracts of the well-known garden varieties (think stately Euphorbia characias subsp.
wulfenii, E. cyparissias, or caper spurge E. lathyris) are usually a shade of green or limy yellow rather than red.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and there is evidence that it has been around for at least a millennium, used by the Aztecs both as a dye and as a feverreducing medicine. It was known then as cuitlaxochitl, meaning ‘flower that grows in residues or soil’; the name poinsettia came into being in 1828 when the American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist, shipped back cuttings to his home in South Carolina. Fast forward a century or so, and a German immigrant, Albert Ecke, started growing and selling the plants commercially on street stalls. Three generations of Eckes later, the poinsettia made its appearance on American TV Christmas specials and its English-speaking Christmas tradition was born.
Today, one of the UK nurseries leading the way in poinsettia production is Neame Lea, in our neighbouring county of Lincolnshire. Last year they supplied supermarkets and garden centres across the country with around 140,000 plants and are hoping to increase production by more than double in future years. Vasile Agache is Neame Lea’s Romanian-born production manager, exuberant and enthusiastic, and clearly a man
on a mission. He has been tasked with improving production, and in particular, eliminating the use of growth-regulating hormone which has traditionally been employed by growers to keep the plant short and bushy. “A poinsettia in the wild is a tall shrub,” he explains. “We wanted to produce good, compact plants without the chemicals.”
In one of the immaculately clean, highly-automated glasshouses, Vasile describes how he has been investigating alternative ways of controlling growth: “This year we had a research trial on water deficit with Lincoln University,” he says. “We monitored the moisture content of a pot, and we found that actually, when I was thinking it was bone dry, in reality it wasn’t dry enough. So now we can save on water too.” He has also been experimenting with different pinching-out regimes, leaving six leaves rather than the customary four-five, as well as more strictly regulated temperatures, using different
‘In my opinion ‘J’Adore Pink’, is a stunning plant, but I am told, ‘yes, it is beautiful but it’s not a Christmas colour’
cultivars, and trialling different mixes of compost. He has found the trials both fascinating and challenging.
“It was quite stressful because there is no room for mistakes. We have here 140,000 plants and if we got it wrong, I would have been in trouble!” Judging by the ocean of compact, bushy plants in the glass house, he has nothing to worry about; these were all produced without the hormone.
In common with other growers, Vasile is keen to champion the range of other colours that are now available, including white, peach and pink. “In my opinion ‘J’Adore Pink’, is a stunning plant,” he says. “But I am told, ‘Yes, it is beautiful but it’s not a Christmas colour.’ We have about 40-50 varieties here but most are different kinds of reds.” His favourite red is ‘Prima Red’, primarily for its natural dome shape, which means there is less stem and more bract on show. “For me that’s the perfect plant,”he says. “I would buy it!” I think my mother-in-law would agree.
ABOVE:Vasile Agache, production manager at Neame Lea Nursery, in front of thousands of poinsettias which the nursery grow for supermarkets and other retail outlets