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Holidays in bloom The popularity of poinsettias as a holiday flower has been boosted by the development of new varieties; Focus on Poinsettias.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A rose by any other name is still a rose - unless it is 'Winter Rose,' a brand-new poinsettia making its debut this holiday season. It is causing a stir.

Unlike a traditional poinsettia, this recently cultivated breed has curly edges that dip and curve inward. It comes in two styles: one bloom perched atop a tall, single stem; or several blooms clustered among the wavy-edged leaves of a multi-branched plant.

At Hillcrest Nursery in Millers, Jim and Steve Hershfeld nurtured 200 'Winter Rose' cuttings from the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., where this new cultivar was created, and where 80 percent of America's poinsettias get their start.

"I like to find something new in plants. It keeps us successful," says Steve Hershfeld, explaining why he took a chance on a plant some call a novelty. "And I have to admit I was indifferent when I first saw the 'Winter Rose.' " Visitors to the Hershfelds' wholesale greenhouses weren't so unsure. "They really flipped over this plant," he adds. "They loved its dark red color, its double flower image and its uniqueness."

"We have discovered that people are open to new varieties of poinsettias," explains Patricia Harr, spokeswoman for the Paul Ecke Ranch, who adds that five years ago 90 per cent of all poinsettias bought by consumers were red, compared with 70 per cent today. "The younger generation is looking for something different from what their parents or grandparents had," she says.

At Behnke Nurseries, a grower/retailer in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, customers have been "very enthusiastic," says assistant buyer Marian Parsley. "When they first see 'Winter Rose,' they think it is weird, but they end up really loving it."

When Behnke's displayed 24 pots of 'Winter Rose' as a trial run in mid-November, customers bought them all. Four hundred more were sold during Thanksgiving week, cleaning out Behnke's home-grown stock. Finding a 'Winter Rose' poinsettia this month is not going to be an easy task.

But never fear. The market is loaded with all sorts of gorgeous poinsettias that will add their charm to holiday decorating. This season over 65 million plants will find their way into American churches, schools, stores, hotels, malls, restaurants and homes. The elegantly vivid poinsettia is No. 1, the most popular flowering potted plant in the United States, according to the USDA's Agriculture Board of Statistics.

Not a bad showing, considering that it once was a scrawny, if showy, plant growing wild on the hills of Mexico. Discovered in 1825 by U.S. Ambassador Joel Robert Poinsett, plants were dug up and shipped to Poinsett's plantation in South Carolina, where they were greeted with enthusiasm by botanists and gardeners. But as late as 1963, poinsettias were still mostly field-grown and harvested to be sold as cut flowers.

When the Eckes and other growers began experimenting with the plants in the early 20th century and moving them into greenhouses, poinsettias blossomed as house plants. By the late 1960s, they were growing in popularity. The USDA reported a 400 per cent increase in wholesale value from 1976 to 1988. Blooming in November and December, the plants became a natural to market during the holiday season.

This Christmas connection isn't new. Poinsettias had played a part in Christian religious celebrations in Mexico as early as the 17th century. Franciscan priests had used the plants as part of a nativity procession during the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. They considered its bright red color a symbol of purity.

"There is a legend that goes along with that story," relates Ecke's spokeswoman Harr. "A little peasant girl wanted to bring a gift to the church to celebrate Christ's birth. She had nothing, but on her way, she grabbed a fistful of weeds growing on a hillside. When she arrived at the church, her weeds had turned into a beautiful red flower - the poinsettia."

While red is considered the most traditional color for poinsettias, today plants also come in white, pink, salmon and even yellow. Some varieties sport color variations like whites marbled with pink or red, and reds speckled with white or pink; some are christened with names like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Candy Cane.' There is even a 'Monet,' a handsome variety whose blooms seem to be washed in muted hues of peach and pink.

Growers have also prodded and twisted poinsettias into new shapes. A poinsettia tree is a topiary-like plant whose colorful blooms top a sturdy but slim stem reaching 3 or 4 feet. Hanging poinsettia baskets are stuffed with nine or more plants that poke through openings, creating a mass of color.

But the best news about today's poinsettias is that they are much more user-friendly. "Growers have really been working to produce plants that are more hardy, with stronger stems. And, they bloom earlier and last longer," explains Marilyn Sparks, who has been tending poinsettias for nearly 20 years at White House Nursery, a wholesale-retail business started in 1972 by her husband, Ted, and his mother, Betty.

The Sparks family sells about 50,000 poinsettias a year to business and walk-in customers who drive out to their greenhouses in Upperco. They appreciate all the improvements

bred into today's poinsettias.

The plants are more tolerant of adverse conditions like too little light, too much water, and temperatures too far below or above 70 degrees. And they are prettier - less leggy, more compact and lush.

Where all this study and experimenting will take the poinsettia is hard to say. The breeders at the Paul Ecke Ranch are right now working hard on a peach-colored 'Winter Rose.'

One thing is for sure. Poinsettias have become as much a part of the holiday scene as pine trees and Christmas carols. Place one of these lovely, festive plants - in any color or style - in a room, and that entire space will resonate with the holiday spirit.

Facts about poinsettias, from the Paul Ecke Ranch

* The brightly colored part of a poinsettia is called a bract, which is a modified leaf. These bracts encircle the cyathium, a cup-like structure that contains tiny yellow flowers. The milky white substance that seeps from poinsettias is latex.

* Bracts begin to take on their dramatic color as the days shorten and the nights get longer in the fall. Most come into full bloom around Thanksgiving and, with the proper care, can stay in good shape until early spring.

* Contrary to popular myth, poinsettias are not poisonous. But like other ornamental plants, they are not meant to be eaten by humans or animals. For more information, call the Maryland Poison Center at 800-492-2414.

* When buying poinsettias, look for dense, green leaves, bracts that are fully colored, strong stems and bright yellow flowers; avoid plants that are drooping, have flowers that are dropping, or are displayed in plastic or paper sleeves. And feel the soil to be sure the plant is not waterlogged.

* When transporting a poinsettia in cold or windy weather, put it in a roomy bag or sleeve, but remove as soon as possible. Poinsettias do not like to be crowded and will deteriorate quickly if left in a bag or sleeve for more than a few hours.

* Tips for caring for poinsettias: Place in bright but indirect light; keep away from drafts, fireplaces and appliances; keep the soil moderately moist and water only when the soil feels dry to the touch; do not fertilize while the plant is blooming. Daytime temperatures should not exceed 70 degrees. Place on tables or counters away from children and animals.

* To keep poinsettias through the summer and encourage a second season of bloom, cut the plant back to about 8 inches when the leaves begin to turn a muddy green; place outside when night temperatures remain above 55 degrees; water regularly and fertilize every two to three weeks; bring inside as fall approaches. Starting Oct. 1, keep the plants in complete darkness for 14 continuous hours, but be sure they get at least six to eight hours of bright sunlight. To achieve complete darkness, put a bag over the plant or move it to a totally dark room; continue watering and fertilizing. In eight to 10 weeks, the plant should bloom.

* For more information, check out the Paul Ecke Web site at www.ecke.com.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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