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GROWING COLORS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For someone who pioneered the idea of a holiday "novelty" plant -- and invented 'Jingle Bells,' one of America's most beloved varieties of poinsettia -- John Fantom of Baltimore County is extravagantly humble. "It was all because of a chimera," he said not long ago with a shrug, and using a rare word to explain a rare occurrence in horticulture.

Others call it a "mutation" or a "sport." By any name, it was a big event in Fantom's life when, back in 1971, a red poinsettia growing in one of his greenhouses inexplicably sprouted a leaf cluster, or bract, that was irregularly mottled in psychedelic shades of raspberry and pink.

Around this time, several other poinsettia growers had seen similar mutations, acknowledged Fantom's friend and fellow greenhouse farmer, Clifford Egerton. "But they all thought it was a virus and discarded the plants," Egerton said. "Only Johnny knew enough to see this sport as something that could be propagated."

In honor of such keen-eyed wisdom, and due to his tireless work in support of the industry, Fantom was named the 2004 Greenhouse Grower of the Year by the Maryland Greenhouse Growers Association. So, since today is National Poinsettia Day, you might guess he'd be resting on his laurels this morning, feet up, and perhaps reading about himself in the newspaper.

Guess again. For though he's arrived at a giddily geriatric age where he rounds upward -- "I'm 13 months shy of 80" -- today, as every day, Fantom is probably at work, prowling among his favorite flowers.

"He's here seven days a week," explained his son, Bob, president of Fantom & Gahs Greenhouses Inc. "Dad has always said that a person who is really happy doesn't need a hobby."

A greenhouse tour

Fantom certainly had a merry smile one recent afternoon as he showed a visitor around his farm in Fullerton, near Belair Road. Above a pair of super-sized spectacles, he wore a cap cocked at a jaunty angle that had a Bulle Rock golf club logo.

Of his 25 greenhouses, the newest is a gleaming pavilion the size of several football fields that some of his employees have playfully dubbed "The Rock," as in Alcatraz. Here, Fantom grows kalanchoes, cyclamen, azaleas and violets. Strolling through The Rock, he had a wave or a word for nearly everyone. One of his employees, Donna Humphreys, who was busily potting begonias, looked after her boss with a sigh.

"I just love Mr. John to death. He's a born teacher," she said. "He always tells us, 'Think of the plant first.' They are like tiny babies, and we are nurturing them."

Elsewhere around his rambling eight acres are much older greenhouses, some dating to the 1880s, where glass-walled rooms are warm, humid and pleasantly corroded about the edges with a mixture of emerald moss and cinnamon-colored mold.

"Watch your noggin," he advised, leading the way through a low-slung door into one of these buildings and parting a red sea of poinsettias arrayed on rolling platforms. The floor was wet, slippery and steeply tilted upward, yet Fantom was surefooted and eagle-eyed in his vigilance over the nearly 50,000 poinsettias he'll ship this season. So paternal is he toward these "babies" that he claims to recognize flowers he's grown when he sees them displayed in public.

As he moved among rows of varieties with names like 'Twilight,' 'Olympus' and 'Monet,' he pointed out subtle differences in petal appearance due to "veination" and "puckering" and offered tips on which lighting best displays a poinsettia's unique sheen.

While talking, he was forever fussing with his plants: caressing, deadheading, checking soil moisture, even pulling a whole plant from the pot and sniffing its roots. He does this instinctively, and seemed almost embarrassed when asked to explain what exactly it is he's looking for.

"Poinsettias are easy to mess up," he finally offered. Because they are prone to diseases both air- and water-borne, Fantom goes so far as to steam-sterilize his soil mix before planting his cuttings. "Every one of our plants is looked at every day. Raising poinsettias is sort of like having cows. You need to tend to them."

Egerton agrees. "Plants don't know that it's Sunday or a holiday or your wife's birthday."

Should John Fantom ever forget this last date, his wife, Carolyn, is usually working in the front office as the company's secretary and treasurer, so she can easily remind him. Fantom & Gahs, you see, is decidedly a family affair. In addition to Bob, another son, Tom, is general manager, and daughter Judy is on the board of directors.

Poinsettias, suggested Tom, are practically a year-round crop. Work begins in early April when the "mother" plants arrive from California and continues over the half-year with soil mixing, rooting of plant cuttings, and manipulations of day length through shrouding the greenhouses with black tarpaulins in order to control when the poinsettias flower.

Finished plants start to be shipped in early November in three waves: first to shopping centers, then to churches and, finally, florist shops. The cycle doesn't end till early March, when the last invoice is paid. Then, it starts all over again. The labor is exhausting and, to the observer, it is somewhat of a mystery how Fantom maintains his enthusiasm year after year.

"Some guys in this industry might as well be selling sand belts. They had some land and wanted to do something with it, so they put up a greenhouse," said Steve Hershfeld, president of the Maryland Greenhouse Growers Association. "But John really cares about plants. He judges his success two ways: by the health and beauty of his flowers and by how often he gets to play golf."

As a matter of fact, when he was younger, Fantom aspired to be a golf course greenskeeper. He was born in Baltimore in 1926, but at age 10, when his father lost his job as an architectural draftsman, the family moved to western Baltimore County.

Living in the countryside gave young John his first real exposure to agriculture. He assisted his mother with a vegetable garden, picked corn for 10 cents an hour, and, later, helped a neighbor tend her three acres. "Up until then gardening was just a job to make money," he recalled, "but Mrs. Minor really opened my eyes by teaching me things like how to divide perennials."

A change of plans

When it was time for college, Fantom applied to Cornell University, where he hoped to study turf management. However, the summer before he was to leave for Ithaca, N.Y., he met his future wife, Carolyn. "Suddenly, Cornell started to seem a lot less interesting," he dryly noted.

Having found a good reason to stay closer to home, Fantom instead enrolled at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture. After two years of studying core subjects like zoology, biology and chemistry, Fantom says, his life "changed on a dime," when he applied for a job in 1948 to produce plants for sale at the Mount Airy Mansion in Prince George's County.

In garden beds, he grew cut flowers like snapdragons and chrysanthemums, and raised gladioluses in the greenhouses. While juggling an accelerated academic schedule (he finished college in 3 1/2 years) with his fulltime gardening job, Fantom suffered enough setbacks from Mother Nature that it "tipped me over into the greenhouse end of the ornamental industry," he said. "Not only are greenhouses year round, but you have more control over the environment."

Upon graduating, he and Bud Gahs, another horticulture student from Maryland, rented some greenhouses on East Joppa Road in Baltimore County. As Fantom & Gahs, they began to grow carnations and snapdragons -- varieties that can be grown in cooler weather, and so would require less in heating costs. This was an important concern for the nearly penniless entrepreneurs.

Toward the end of the '50s, as air freight became more common and cheaper imports from Central America and Holland made it less profitable to grow cut flowers, Fantom switched to growing potted plants, poinsettias among them.

In tropical and subtropical regions, the poinsettia thrives outdoors and may grow to be 10 feet tall. A common shrub in the Southeastern states and in California, the plant is thought to be native to Central America and flourishes in southern Mexico. There it might have remained, had it not been for Joel R. Poinsett, who became the United States' first minister to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett, an amateur gardener, fell in love with the velvety red blooms of Euphorbia pulcherrima and had cuttings shipped home to his native South Carolina. There, Poinsett began experiments on the plant that would eventually bear his name.

Paul Ecke of Encinitas, Calif., was an early champion of the plant. According to Jeff Charles, a professor of history at California State University in San Marcos who is writing a book about California's flower industry, Ecke was so bullish on poinsettias that he made them the first flower to be given a marketing campaign. "In the 1920s, Ecke traveled on extensive tours across America, showing his poinsettias to florists and garden clubs," Charles said. That the flowers happened naturally to bloom near Christmas soon made them a popular choice in churches around the holidays.

It was Paul Ecke Jr., however, who in the 1960s had the bright idea to arrange for the plants to be used as seasonal decoration on the sets of popular television talk shows. This was when the advertising phrase "As Seen on TV" could still be used un-ironically and, as a result, sales of poinsettias boomed.

Valuable mutation

Shortly after the flower became America's best-selling potted plant (a market share that's only grown since the '60s -- in 2002, the USDA reports, more than 65 million poinsettias were sold in the United States alone), John Fantom noticed something peculiar on one of his plants. "It was a freak, an anomaly," he said. "It's like a man's head on a goat, if you know what I mean."

Since he'd bought his mother plant from Ecke Ranch, Fantom dutifully informed it of what had occurred. "Fortunately for us," he said, "Paul Jr. didn't feel it had any commercial value and relinquished his rights. I persisted, though, and got it to breed true."

The lone mutated stem had eight buds. Fantom propagated each, and three grew with the distinctive raspberry and pink mottling. Eventually, when popular demand for 'Jingle Bells' poinsettias exceeded Fantom's ability to produce them, he renegotiated a contract with Ecke Farms -- "Paul Jr. said to me, 'Hmm, John, it looks like I missed something here,' " -- and together, by 1975, they were supplying 'Jingle Bells' all across America, as they still do today.

After 41 years of partnership, Fantom and Bud Gahs divided their assets in 1991 and Fantom, who kept the corporate name, moved his operation to Fitch Avenue. Nowadays, since they only represent a quarter of his total revenue, he raises far more than just poinsettias. Fantom holds the plant patent on Kalanchoe 'Pink Carnation,' the only ruffle-edged kalanchoe on the market. And, on a day in late November, he was readying a dumbfounding number of prepotted tulip bulbs, all of which would spend the winter planted under a protective layer of sand and straw till they are dug up next spring.

Doesn't he ever tire of the work that greenhouse farming demands of him?

Fantom appeared surprised by the question. "No. I am very content," he said. "To do something you enjoy and to make a decent living ... well, I consider myself blessed."

John Fantom

Age: 78

Occupation: greenhouse owner

Education: degree in horticulture, University of Maryland

Family: wife, Carolyn; sons Bob and Tom; daughter Judy

Keeping poinsettias healthy

Select a plant that has thoroughly colored and expansive bracts (meaning, the red, pink or white parts). Look for plentiful foliage all the way down to the stem.

Avoid plants that are displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves. Poinsettias crave space, so a sleeve cramps a plant's style and can worsen its health.

Poinsettias are tropical plants and unaccustomed to temperatures below 50 degrees. Keep your plant away from either cold drafts or heating vents.

Water the plant just enough to keep the soil slightly moist. Don't let the poinsettia sit in water, as sogginess will cause wilting and rotted roots.

Display your poinsettia in the best light: natural light from a window during the day, incandescent bulbs at night. A poinsettia hates to be illuminated by fluorescent bulbs or mercury lamps.

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