New Hybrids Promise To Rock Your Poinsettia World

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New hybrids are changing the poinsettia world

Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become the symbol of an American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to revel in the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were celebrated for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink, orange and even blue.

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Joel Roberts Poinsett

About poinsettias 

While they’re now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to the tropical forests of southern Mexico. In their natural habitat, poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like, often taking the form of shrubs or small trees. They bloom in late fall after the end of the rainy season.

Wild poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima

Due to their bright red color, poinsettias have been a favorite at Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600s. But in the United States, the plants were virtually unheard of until the early 1800s. This is when Poinsett, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, stumbled upon some while stationed in the country.

Poinsett was so struck by the unusual-looking species that he began collecting cuttings and sending them back to his family in South Carolina. When he returned home, Poinsett started propagating his own plants. Then he introduced them to botanical gardens and nurseries throughout America.

The fluorescent ‘Luv U Pink’

As it grew in popularity due mainly to efforts by Poinsett, the species became known in the United States as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ The plant’s scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter-blooming properties made it a colorful addition to holiday households. Following Poinsett’s death, the plant was renamed Poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.

The leaf is the flower

Although they look like flowers, poinsettias’ bright red ‘blooms’ are in fact modified leaves called bracts. The plant’s actual flowers are the tiny cluster of yellow spheres in the poinsettia’s center. In order to produce the colorful bracts, poinsettias require a daily diet of at least 12 hours of darkness followed by a period of bright sun. This is a long process undertaken by the grower.

The yellow spheres in the center are the flowers

During the 1800s, the poinsettia remained pretty much a greenhouse curiosity. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that additional colors were discovered. Then in the 1960s, the introduction of more compact varieties led to mass production and marketing of the holiday ‘flower.’

Today in addition to the traditional red, you can now find poinsettias in every shade of salmon, pink, yellow, orange and white. Still other varieties are marbled or striped. And there are more than 100 new cultivars in development.

The U.S. Botanic Garden Collection

One of the best places to view the new varieties is the U.S. Botanic Garden, located just off the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. There are magnificent displays of the tropical plants arranged by color in the entry foyer (part of the DC Landmarks Display) and there are native Mexican ones growing wild in the Garden’s tropical forest. But the real surprise is reserved for the back of the garden. There, in a sun-splashed hall are around 50 unusual varieties, part of the U.S. Botanic Garden’s own collection.

Following are some of the standouts from this year’s 2018 exhibit.

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Autumn Leaves’

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Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bells’

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Ecke White’

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Red Glitter’

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Christmas Beauty Cinammon’

Traditional poinsettias are selections of Euphorbia pulcherrima. But a process patented in 2003 has allowed growers to cross Euphorbia pulcherrima with Euphorbia cornastra to create some spectacular hybrids. Many of these new varieties feature much smaller central flowers, placing the focus more on the colorful leaves. Here are some great examples.

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Poinsettia hybrid ‘Princettia Hot Pink’

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Poinsettia hybrid ‘Princettia Max White’

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Poinsettia hybrid ‘Luv U Pink’

Poinsettia hybrid ‘Luv U Soft Pink’

How to pick a poinsettia

When shopping for a poinsettia, make sure to look for a plant that has dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line. Choose plants that have fully-colored bracts and no green around the bract edges. Green edges are a sign that the plant is older and won’t last as long. Never buy plants with yellowed leaves, which are sure signs of plant stress.

poinsettia in foil

Although bred to be compact, poinsettia branches break easily. Check to make sure no cracked branches are being held up by the foil sleeve. And always remove the sleeve after purchasing. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to survive.

Water well and allow the plant to dry out before re-watering. Avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts. Expose the poinsettia to plenty of sunlight to keep its bright color.

Toxicity

Although the sap and latex of the poinsettia leaves can cause a mild allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals, the plants themselves are not poisonous. As for the commonly-held belief that the plants are toxic to pets, the Pet Poison Helpline confirms that while poinsettias are listed as toxic to dogs and cats, they are only mildly irritating to the mouth and stomach if swallowed.

Fun fact

Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized since it is named after a person. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is pronounced poin-set-ee-ah.

 

 

 

Mistletoe: The Poisonous Plant We Love To Hang At Christmas

European or Common mistletoe, Viscum album

This season many of us will be hanging mistletoe as part of a long-standing tradition. And while kissing under its evergreen branches is a holiday ritual, the plant doesn’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. Why?  Because mistletoe contains a Christmas cocktail of toxins that can be harmful to human and pet health. Best to keep it out of reach if it’s going to be part of your seasonal decorations.

What it is

For all its romantic associations, mistletoe is in fact no loving plant. In nature, it is known as parasitic. That means it specializes in attaching to the branches of a tree or shrub and penetrating it with its roots to steal water and other nutrients.

And while its deep green, ball-like form adds a touch of ‘life’ to bare branches, once mistletoe gets its roots into a plant it starts to destroy it. This usually requires the removal of all infested limbs and in some cases entire trees in which there are large-scale invasions.

Attractive but parasitic bright green clusters of European mistletoe

Complicating things is the fact that mistletoe seeds are easily spread. Those pretty white berries that add a frosty touch to the sprig? Birds love them. And as they’re carried away, the berries’ sticky pulp drops onto the upper branches of shrubs and trees, effectively ‘planting’ seeds on other species.

The white berries of mistletoe

All told, it can take up to two years for a mistletoe to fully develop within a plant. Once it has firmly taken root, it finishes off the job by sending out clumps of aerial shoots that typically weaken and distort the host, sometimes even killing it over time.

What happens if I eat mistletoe?

There are two main species of mistletoe; Viscum album, known as European or Common mistletoe, and Phoradendron, known as American or Oak mistletoe. Both contain a mix of toxic compounds in their stems, leaves and berries that can be harmful to humans and pets if ingested.

The more toxic of the two is Viscum album. Native to Europe and western and southern Asia, it has pairs of smooth, oval shaped leaves and small clusters of sticky white berries. Viscum album contains a mix of chemicals that includes poisonous amounts of the alkaloid tyramine, which can cause stomach upset, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, blood pressure changes and in rare cases even death.

The oval leaves and white berries of Viscum album, Common mistletoe

Not to worry (too much), though. In North America, viscum album is a rarity unless it has been purposely transplanted (California being the exception.) Instead, a similar species populates our forests. Native to the U.S. and Mexico, Phoradendron has shorter and broader leaves than the European species and larger clusters of white berries. It secretes a toxin called phoratoxin, which causes the same symptoms as Viscum album, but to a lesser extent.

The paddle-shaped leaves of Phoradendron, American mistletoe

The good news is that although until recently American mistletoe has been widely considered to be as poisonous as the European species, downing a few berries is likely to lead to no more than a stomachache. Studies have shown that you’d have to eat a whole lot of berries to experience these reactions. This according to the National Capital Poison Center’s recent studies describing American mistletoe exposures (mainly by young children at Christmas). The vast majority of patients who had eaten parts of the plant had no symptoms and there were no fatalities, even among those who had swallowed mistletoe on purpose.

Mistletoe poisoning in dogs and cats

In small amounts, mistletoe most likely will cause no more than mild gastrointestinal distress to your pet. But if your cat or dog accidentally consumes large amounts of the plant, it could lead to abnormal heart rate, collapse or even seizures. If you suspect your pet has eaten mistletoe, contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline for treatment recommendations.

Mistletoe is most harmful to small children and pets/Photo credit: Michael Pettigrew

Mistletoe as medicine

Perhaps due to its toxicity, the European species, Viscum album, has been used by herbalists for centuries to improve circulatory and respiratory problems and to treat a variety of conditions including seizures, hypertension, headaches and arthritis. More recently, mistletoe extract has shown promise in stimulating the immune system in some limited laboratory studies. Today in Europe it is also being used as a cancer treatment.

(Although the United States FDA has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition, it is nonetheless being studied in clinical trials.)

Mistletoe is currently being harvested in Europe for its cancer-fighting properties

The take-away

Used safely, mistletoe may do a lot more for humankind than just providing a romantic canopy. As we learn more and more about what plants can do, mistletoe’s powerful medicinal qualities are something to celebrate in addition to its decorative properties. Something to think about next time someone reaches in for a kiss under its bough.

Daffodil Dreaming: Top Varieties To Plant Before Winter

Yesterday I planted the last of my daffodils for the season. As I dropped the bulbs into their egg-shaped holes, I could already envision their bright yellow cups emerging like trumpets come spring. Which got me thinking: what is it about daffodils that make us so happy? Is it their bright color, incredible variety or sheer beauty in numbers? I set out to find the answer.

WHY WE LOVE THEM

Of course many of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Narcissus, who bears the same name as this popular spring flower. To punish him for not loving Echo, the gods condemned the handsome boy to falling in love with the first face he saw. That face happened to be his own, which Narcissus saw reflected in water.

Narcissism has since come to represent those who are obsessed with their appearance. But, while daffodils (scientific name Narcissus) are indeed beautiful, I would argue that they are hardly self-centered. Rather, they seem to be the ones giving us joy.

Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the water

A deeper dive reveals that the word narcissus arose from the Greek narco meaning ‘becoming numb’, which is also the root of the word narcotic. It’s true that daffodils are mildly toxic. While for some, the sudden appearance of yellow flowers on the heels of a gray winter can produce levels of euphoria. This may be a better explanation for the meaning behind their name.

Daffodils in early spring

But, the appeal of daffodils could be simply due to the color yellow itself, the brightest color that the human eye can see. There’s little doubt that the flower’s joyful appearance helps lift us out of our winter doldrums as its trumpets the return of warmer weather. And masses of blooming daffodils are ripe with the expectation of happiness.

A BIG FAMILY TREE

Depending on who you talk to, there are currently between 40 and 200 different daffodil species and over 32,000 registered cultivars.  These species, subspecies and varieties of species are divided among 13 divisions. Known as the official classification system, it categorizes daffodils depending on the size and shape of the cups as compared to the petals.

Here’s a rundown of each and links to some standout varieties, recognized for their color, fragrance and overall beauty.

Division 1: Trumpet Daffodils

Characterized by large blooms and only one flower per stem, these cultivars have trumpets that are as long or longer than their petals. Some of the earliest to bloom, trumpet daffodils come in a wide variety of shapes and colors including Mount Hood, King Alfred and 4U2.

Trumpet daffodil ‘King Alfred’

Division 2: Large-Cupped

These varieties have cups that are more than one third, but less than equal to the length of their petals. Each stem bears a single flower. Large-cupped daffodils come in a wide range of colors and have flat, ruffled or trumpet-like shapes. Great cultivars include: Salome, Ice Follies and the exquisite, soft yellow Day Dream.

Large-cupped daffodil ‘Salome’

Division 3: Small-Cupped

These varieties have cups that are not more than one third the length of their petals. Each stem carries one medium-sized flower often in bright hues. Popular selections include: the exquisitely-shaped Eleanor Auchincloss, Ringtone and Barrett Browning.

Small-cupped daffodil ‘Barrett Browning’

Division 4: Doubles

Not everyone’s a fan of these unusually-shaped flowers with their frilly rows of petals that resemble carnations. Nevertheless, many have a sweet fragrance and work well under flowering shrubs and trees. Try pink and white Replete, tropical-colored Tahiti or soft pink Angélique.

Double daffodil ‘Tahiti’

Division 5: Triandrus

Tiny and low-growing, these daffodils are distinguished by their petals that flare back, exposing their bell-shaped cups. The delicate-looking flowers droop downwards like columbines. Triandrus daffodils prefer wetter conditions and produce 2 to 3 flowers per stem. Example include: the dainty white Thalia, soft yellow ‘Angel’s Breath‘ and bright yellow Hawera.

Triandrus daffodil ‘Thalia’

Division 6: Cyclamineus

Cyclamineus daffodils have smaller-sized trumpets and petals that flare back from the cup. They are  prized for their early flowering and diminutive size, which makes them great for naturalizing in large masses. Great varieties include: Wisley, Peeping Tom and February Gold.

Cylcamineus daffodil ‘February Gold’

Division 7: Jonquils

Strongly fragrant with 3 or more small blooms per stem, jonquil daffodils are characterized by their flat, rounded petals. Traditionally yellow, they are also now available in white/yellow combinations. Narrow foliage give them a grass-like appearance. Able to endure hot southern sun, they’re great for naturalizing. Try Pueblo or Bell Song.

Yellow jonquil daffodils

Division 8: Tazettas

Producing fragrant clusters of up to 20 flowers per stem, tazetta daffodils are prized for their strong scent and heavy flower bearing. Great varieties include Geranium, Grand Primo and one of my personal favorites, Minnow.

Tazetta daffodil ‘Minnow’

Division 9: Poeticus 

Also known as Pheasant’s Eye, Poet’s daffodils have very shallow, red-rimmed cups and bright white petals. Cups are usually bright colored, giving the impression of a central ring against a bright white backdrop (like an eye.) One flower per stem. Great varieties include: Actaea and Recurvus.

White Poet’s daffodil

Division 10: Bulbocodium

Also known as Petticoat daffodils for their lampshade-shaped cups, bulbocodiums grow to just 4 to 6 inches tall and have grass like foliage. The smallest of all the narcissus, the species is unusual in that its trumpet is exceptionally large in relation to its petals. Check out Yellow Hoop and Spoirot.

Yellow ‘Petticoat’ daffodils

Division 11: Split-Cupped

Split-cupped daffodils have cups that are cut more than have their length. Parts of the trumpet are splayed out and appear as another ring of petals. This cultivar is also sometimes called butterfly daffodil.

Look for Apricot Whirl, Lemon Beauty and tiny coral-pink Shrike.

Split-cupped daffodil

Division 12: Miscellaneous or Other

This division Includes all those daffodils that don’t fall into the above classifications plus natural species’ variants and hybrids.

Division 13: Species Distinguished by Botanical Name (Optional?)

Often left off of other lists, according to The Daffodil Society this division is nonetheless a part of the official daffodil classification system.

BEFORE YOUR PLANT

I realize that for we East Coasters, time is running out for planting spring bulbs. However, many parts of the country still have ample time to get some of these great cultivars in the ground before frost. All varieties need to be planted sometime in the fall before the ground freezes.

Once planted, all daffodil varieties are maintenance free and will naturalize year after year. Deer hate them. Just make sure to respect your bulb’s requirements for sun, part shade, dry or wet conditions. It makes a difference.

While there are many theories on when to remove the leaves, I ascribe to the one that advocates leaving the leaves on for about 6 weeks after blooms until they yellow. This allows the plant to absorb energy from sunlight which it redirects back down into the bulb to feed next year’s flowers.

 

Why Leaves Change Color and Other Fun Fall Facts

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Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

-Albert Camus

I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective; that is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while the leaves ‘bloom’ above us.  And each year, nature unveils new surprises, dazzling us with colors and combinations so vivid and daring as to leave little doubt as to her ability to create designs far superior to our own. Continue reading

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The ornamental plant is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and spectacular rosette, it’s one of only a few species that actually thrives in cold weather. In fact, flowering kale likes cool temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter, making it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Giant Corpse Flower Unleashes Its Stinky Scent In Denver

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Corpse flower

It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading

Managing Hydrangeas: To Prune Or Not To Prune And Other Existential Questions

To prune or not to prune? That is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently I asked a top landscaper in Middleburg, Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without destroying next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, knowing what kind of hydrangeas you have growing in your garden. Different varieties require different pruning methods. Prune at the wrong time and you risk trimming off next year’s blooms. It all starts with knowing whether your hydrangeas flower on old or new wood. Continue reading