Poinsettias with pizzazz

New varieties may become year-round fixtures

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Should you stick with a tried, true, and traditional red poinsettia this year, or opt for one that's a little different, something with a bit more pizzazz and character?

This year, there's a perky new poinsettia on the market called Winter Rose [pictured left]. It's the first one with curly bracts. (The showy "petals" of the plant aren't the flowers, but are called bracts. The true flowers are the tiny yellow boat-shaped "buttons" in the center of each colorful bract.)

Because of its curved form, the unusual poinsettia appears to be covered with large roses. It's an appealing look that's proving quite popular, says Dawn Woodruff of Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., where the new plant was developed.

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But its novelty isn't the only thing Winter Rose has going for it. It also makes an enduring cut flower, lasting more than two weeks without fading. And it requires less watering. "The curved bracts don't dry out as fast," says Ms. Woodruff.

Improper watering - too much or too little - is the main cause of failure with poinsettias. How do you know when to water? If the soil feels dry, water; if wet, wait.

If the plant is wrapped in foil, punch a few holes in the bottom to allow for drainage.

Those wraps also present other problems. If left over the foliage too long, they can cause bract and leaf loss.

If you've avoided poinsettias because you've heard they are poisonous, worry no more. An Ohio State University study conducted for the Society of American Florists showed there's no truth to that old rumor.

Poinsettias have come a long way since they were introduced to the world by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. (The preferred pronunciation, according to Webster, is poin-SET-ee-uh, by the way.)

On a visit to Taxco, Mexico in December 1828, Mr. Poinsett became so fascinated by the colorful wild plants - which reached the size of small trees - that he had some shipped back to his plantation in South Carolina. Within 20 years they had achieved great popularity in warm regions such as California, where they were marketed as holiday cut flowers.

It wasn't until the early 1920s that poinsettias began to be sold as potted house plants.

As recently as 25 years ago, they were considered temperamental. But selective breeding has produced plants that, with a minimum of care, persist until spring. No wonder that each holiday season more than 70 million of them are sold in the US and 150 million worldwide.

Winter Rose, which took about 30 years for Franz Fruehwirth to develop, may be the first poinsettia with curly foliage and bracts. But it won't be the last, the folks at Paul Ecke Ranch hint. More are on the way, along with a shift to poinsettias in un-Christmassy colors such as yellow and orange, being available almost year-round.

For now, though, poinsettias remain as much a part of the holiday decorating as evergreen wreaths and fir trees.

PICKING A POINSETTIA

* Quality poinsettias have dark green leaves that extend to the rim of the pot. The bracts should be fully colored with no green around the edges, and the tiny yellow flowers in the center of the bracts should be closed.

* For a good, balanced appearance, look for a plant that is about 2-1/2 times taller than the diameter of the container in which it's growing.

* Protect your plant from getting chilled on the way to and from your car. Place it in a plastic bag for transport, then take it straight home. A chilling below 50 degrees F can cause the leaves to drop.

* Avoid placing your plant in dark corners of cold rooms. Poinsettias like at least six hours of bright, indirect light each day and temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees F. No cold drafts or gusts of hot air from fireplaces or any heat source.

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