An American Passion for Poinsettias

Love ’em or hate ’em, poinsettias are indisputably our number one holiday potted plant. This year, 70+ million poinsettias will be sold in the U.S. for more than 250 million dollars between Thanksgiving and Christmas, accounting for roughly 25 percent of the annual potted plant market.


Variegated poinsettias, such this stunning ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, are popular, but traditional red is still the best seller.

Here in the Upstate, many gardeners know the plant’s common name honors Joel Poinsett, a Charleston native with a summer home in Greenville who served as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico.

Plants which arrived in the U.S. nearly 200 years ago were initially given the botanical name Euphorbia poinsettia by John Bartram of Philadelphia, but Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “the most beautiful euphorb,” was published first by German botanists, and thus adopted as the official name.

Euphoria is a large genus of plants with about 2,000 species and includes annuals and perennials as well as trees and shrubs.  All have a milky sap and are further distinguished by a cyathium made of fused bracts which form a cup around tiny flowers at branch tips.  Some, such as the poinsettia, have clusters of cyathia, plus additional bracts (a modified leaf) that provide color.

Last December, thanks to a program at the Poinsett Hotel by Dr. Jim Faust of Clemson University, I had the opportunity to see a wild poinsettia collected from southern Mexico and photographs of the plant growing in its native habitat, where it can reach 12 to 15-feet tall.  In addition to its form as a gangly, single-stalk shrub, the wild plant is quite different from those we know today.


This wild poinsetta from the Manantlan Biosphere Reserve, in Jalisco, Mexico, has an open center and drooping, narrow bracts.

In the wild, the cyathia at the tip of the stalk form an open center and the colorful bracts, which turn bright red in reaction to shorter day length of the winter equinox, are narrow in shape and droop downwards, away from the branch tip.

Many stories claim that  Joel Poinsett collected poinsettias from the wild, but Dr. Faust believes it’s more likely those sent to the U.S. were gathered from markets, and thus the product of hundreds of years of selection.

Even though early imported plants were more decorative than their wild cousins, it took years of extensive research and breeding to produce the modern poinsettia.  In fact, the earliest plants sold for the holidays did not branch, but included 3 or 4 individual plants with their stalks folded and doubled up on themselves (“tromboned”) to make a shorter plant.

Competitiveness among breeders, particularly as the market for the holiday sales grew, eventually unlocked the secret to producing a branching poinsettia, as well as a compact cluster of cyathia for a tight center, and more attractive bracts, including a wider variety of colors such as pink and white.  In recent years, variegated bracts have become popular, and now those with striped, dotted, blotched, marbled bracts have joined the more traditional.  Dark red, however, still accounts for roughly 75 percent of sales.

Today’s breeding efforts are focusing on hardier and longer-lasting poinsettias, as well as those that can transcend the holiday image.  The recently introduced ‘Autumn Leaves’, with golden and pinky-peach bracts, is targeted for early sales.  And some new hybridized plants are being called euphorbias rather than poinsettias, in the hope they will become a staple for winter and not only the holiday season.


Poinsettia ‘Autumn Leaves’

Window Views

The Upstate saw its first frost this week, with temperatures just below freezing on Sunday and Monday nights.  Nonetheless, sunny and mild days continue and many of the deciduous trees in the neighborhood, with the exception of tulip poplars (Liriodendron tuliperifera), are at their height of autumn color.  Typically, the last leaves are cleared away in late November or early December, but we are behind schedule this year.  Today, the views from inside are stunning.


From my desk chair looking towards the neighbor’s house across the street.


Golden hickory trees and russet oaks outside the sunroom.


And from the living room, a peek at the vibrant Kousa dogwood (Cornus) beside the carport.

For those who tolerate my frequent objections to shade, these photos will give you an idea of what I’m up against.  There are no complaints just now, however.  The views are too pretty for protest.

Coming Clean

Okay, the succulent-packed pumpkin in the previous post cost just a fraction of the amount named.  It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, because little projects like this always add up to more than expected.  The actual cost was about $60, with two-thirds ($40) going towards succulents.  Five or so years ago, the selection of succulents was limited, but they could be bought for a pittance.  Now, however, they are “in,” and the cost is two or more times what it was just a short time ago.

Also, the pumpkin is a hard-skinned French heirloom, ‘Rouge vif D’Etampes’, and can last months indoors.  Perhaps even more importantly, the fruit is not cut; green sheet moss is glued to the top of the pumpkin and then, to hold the succulents, a plastic pot liner (trimmed to 1-inch tall) is glued to the moss, as shown below.  For more tips, you can read the column in the Greenville News here.


Cinderella pumpkin–ready for a top mop of succulents. Arrange from the outside toward the center, trailing types first, then rosettes, and finally upright forms.

In the U.S., seeds for the Cinderella pumpkin can be found online at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Moving on to something new, look at this chrysanthemum and butterfly I spied yesterday at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The mum is ‘Miss Gloria’s Thanksgiving Day’ and the butterfly is an American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).  It’s very similar to the better known Painted Lady, but can be distinguished by the small white spot on its foreweing in the orange field just below the black apical patch, as well as two large eyespots on its hindwing, best seen from the underside when the wings are closed.


An American Lady visiting ‘Miss Gloria’s Thanksgiving Day.”


In a Vase on Monday, sort of

As I was admiring and enjoying my blogging friends’ Monday vases this morning, I suddenly realized I could share my Thanksgiving centerpiece. Not technically a vase, not technically blooms…but sort of, kind of, stretching the limits…in the ballpark.


A succulent-packed pumpkin Thanksgiving centerpiece.

This type of project is what you resort to after 15 years of writing for the newspaper and are desperate to produce another weekly column that’s worth reading.  It’s the end of autumn, the most difficult time of year for a garden writer; you’ve already done the “leaf mold” thing, the “late bloomers” thing, and the “put the garden to bed” thing.  There is nothing new, especially when nearly everything in the garden is dead from drought, unless you pen a tell-all, “Confessions of a Plant Killer.”  Your head is empty of any and all clever ideas. Then, you discover an amazing photo on the internet and think, “I can do that!”

So, $287 and 4 hot glue-burned fingers later, you have this!  Yes, it’s fabulous.  Yes, the column is put to bed for another week.  Yes, it’s a blessing in itself that the Thanksgiving centerpiece is done with time to spare.

Now, the only question is this…

What color can I paint this pumpkin on November 25th so the arrangement works for Christmas too?

As you ponder, take time to visit Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, to see what other vase makers are up to this week.




Oh, deer!

Can you spy the deer in this photo?


Not so easy? Then how about this one?


And again? Yes, now there are two!


Tim and I have seen these two young whitetail deer intermittently on the woodland terraces near the river since early summer, when they first appeared with their mother, who had a single fawn in 2015. Born in late May, give or take a few weeks, they probably weigh about 70 or so pounds and have been recently abandoned by their mother for another cycle of reproduction.  Tim says they are little bucks.  I have to admit, they look so lost and timid just now, I can’t help but feel sorry for them.

But deer, as we all know, can do a lot of damage in a garden. Currently, they are grazing on acorns, but in spring they eat my beloved wild Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) down to a nub.

Even worse, the overpopulation of whitetail deer throughout the Eastern Seaboard is accountable for significant crop losses, forest damage, car collisions (more than 2,000 annually in South Carolina alone), and spread of Lyme disease. Just 2 deer, without predation, can produce a herd of 35 in just 7 years.  It’s a huge problem.

Even so, who could blame these little ones for simply doing the best they can? They might be trouble makers, but I get excited every time I see them.

Late Bloomer

Do you know this little onion?


Allium thumbergii

Commonly called Japanese onion, Allium thumbergii is the latest of all ornamental onions to flower.  Loose, mop-like heads atop thin scapes feature tiny, cup-shaped blooms, each with six tepals and elongated stamens.

The species grows 18 to 24-inches tall, but look for the compact Ozawa, which is more floriferous and has larger flower heads.  A white-flowered form known as ‘Alba’ is equally stunning.


Allium thumbergii ‘Alba’

Native to Asia, where it grows along woodland margins, Japanese onion is easy to grow in full sun to part shade.  Choose areas with well-drained, average soils, taking care to avoid damp conditions.