US Botanic Garden Presents The Latest Poinsettia Varieties

One of many beautiful poinsettias at the US Botanic Garden

I’ve been to the US Botanic Garden (USBG) many times and have always enjoyed the beautiful displays that change with the seasons. But in December, I bypass the holiday dazzle of the evergreen-draped lobby, work my way through the steamy medicinal plant and orchid gardens and head straight to the restrooms. There, behind the glass atrium in a quiet passage all its own is the USBG’s best-kept secret: a one-of-a-kind poinsettia display.

And the collection grows year after year to include an increasing array of spectacular varieties. Sharing the limelight with the traditional reds are the latest, eye-catching hybrids in bright white, soft yellow, light pink and salmon. There are marbled varieties, spotted ones and some that are the result of crossbreeding with other species (more on that below.)

US Botanic Garden poinsettia passage

The effect is of a rich winter garden filled with unusual, multi-colored flowers. Luckily there are benches just across on which a visitor can sit back and take it all in.

The leaf is not the flower

It’s important to note, when looking at a poinsettia, that it’s the bracts (modified leaves) that provide the color. The real blooms are the tiny yellow buds called cyathia in the center. Once the flowers have shed their pollen, the plant drops its bracts and leaves. Because of this, it’s always good when shopping for a poinsettia to select a plant with little or no pollen showing.

Poinsettia flowers are yellow

Poinsettias are referred to as a short-day photoperiod crop, meaning they naturally flower once the nights become longer. To create their colored bracts, the plants require at least 12 hours at a time of darkness over a period of at least five days in a row. Once they have completed the process, however, poinsettias require bright sunlight during the day to attain the brightest color.

Once considered a weed

In its native Mexico, the poinsettia is a perennial flowering shrub or small tree that typically grows to a height of 10 to 15 feet. A member of the spurge family, it goes by the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima. Poinsettia shrubs were once considered weeds. Today they are the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada, with more than 100 varieties available.

A poinsettia shrub as it might appear in the wild

The Dogwood poinsettia, Euphorbia cornastra, was first discovered in 1973 growing in the high elevation tropical forests of Mexico. Although similar in growth habit and inflorescence to Euphorbia pulcherrima, it has gray-green foliage and is summer flowering. Dogwood poinsettia is prized for its pure-white bracts. This year’s USBG display includes a stunning example.

Dogwood poinsettia, Euphorbia conastra

Close-up of Euphorbia conastra’s brilliant white inflorescence

White varieties followed traditional red

The first white poinsettia varieties were introduced in the 1970s. Since then, there have been many improvements. An example is Euphorbia ‘Princettia Pure White’, which features pure white bracts and barely visible flowers. The Princettia series has a unique bract form whose blooms mature early, resulting in a more clean-looking ‘flower.’

Cross-breeding has spawned an array of new colors

Growers have been tinkering with hybrid poinsettias for some time now, making the plants more compact and increasing their longevity. The past five years, though, have seen a surge in cross-breeding specifically to produce unconventional colors. The new hues are created by crosses between poinsettia and other euphorbia species.

‘Luv U Pink’ is one such variety produced by the Paul Ecke Ranch for Breast Cancer Awareness. Its hot pink bracts have a thin, pale pink edge. The bracts have an otherworldly iridescent shimmer.

Euphorbia ‘Luv U Pink’

A newer variety incorporates a white splash.

Euphorbia ‘Luv U Pink Splash’

You can’t lose these marbles

The marbled varieties, first pioneered in the 1970s, provide a spectacular contrast to the traditional reds. I love their painterly quality, almost as if someone has splashed them with a brush.

Euphorbia ‘Red Glitter’

Euphorbia ‘Peppermint Ruffles’

Euphorbia ‘Christmas Feelings Red Cinnamon’

Euphorbia ‘Ice Punch

Pretty in pink

Then there are the soft pink varieties, which provide a quiet respite from all the bright hues. Among them, these three are standouts:

Euphorbia ‘Luv U Soft Pink’

Euphorbia ‘Princettia Pink’

Euphorbia ‘Autumn Leaves’

Back to basics

Of course, traditional red still makes up the bulk of the sales, with growers hesitant to spend the time and money it takes to develop too many new varieties. Usually they choose just a couple to focus on and leave the rest of their energy for the reds. Below, USBG’s 2017 display includes Euphorbia ‘Jester Red’, Euphorbia ‘St. Louis’ (shrub) and a beautiful rose-shaped variety called Euphorbia ‘Winter Rose Early Red’.

Traditional reds: Euphorbias ‘Jester Red, ‘St. Louis’ and ‘Winter Rose Early Red’

Close-up of Euphorbia ‘Winter Rose Early Red’

Before you go rushing to the nursery (as I did) to purchase some of these gorgeous new varieties, though, it’s worth noting that many are not yet commercially available. Still, I was delighted to find two varieties of the marbled ‘Jingle Bells’ at my local grower. Here’s hoping more hybrids will come onto the market in the coming years.

For more information on poinsettias’ namesake, Ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett, and how the plant came to be so famous, click here for my blog post on the Paul Ecke Ranch.

 

 

Top Holiday Plants And How To Keep Them Blooming

Soon, many of us will be receiving gifts of holiday plants with no clue what to do with them. Sure, the seasonal blooms look great in their decorative wrappings, but too often, just one week later they’re already showing signs of distress. Why toss these beauties in the trash when there’s still so much floral potential? Here’s how to keep your holiday plants looking their best and blooming well past the holiday season.

THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO

The best thing you can do for your holiday plant is to remove its decorative wrapper. All plants need good drainage to maintain good health. Foil wrappers and containers without drainage holes prevent water from escaping, meaning your holiday plant will sit in water every time you water it. You might have noticed the signs – yellowing leaves and sagging flowers? Since waterlogged soils leave little space for oxygen, the roots start to rot and very soon after, the plant dies.

Kalanchoe

Kalanchoes

I love receiving gifts of this beautiful succulent. The tiny clusters of orange, yellow, red or pink flowers remain attractive for weeks and the deep green, glossy foliage provides a dramatic backdrop. It’s crucial, though, to remove the container when watering. Succulents need good drainage and will rot if they receive too much water.

No forced blooms here — kalanchoes naturally bloom indoors during winter and early spring. Place your gift in bright light so it can receive at least 2 hours of sun, and water it every 2 weeks when the top of the soil feels dry. Keep it away from drafty doors and windows, which will spell the death of this holiday plant.

Cyclamen

Cyclamens

My house is often filled with cyclamens at holiday time. I love the plant’s upswept, fluttery petals and deep green variegated leaves. Florist cyclamens have been bred over more than 150 years, and today there are many new colors, petal shapes, sizes and fragrances to choose from.

Cyclamens can be pretty temperamental, though. Since they prefer cooler temperatures (below 70°F is ideal), their leaves will yellow and their flowers will droop if they get too hot. The plants are also very sensitive to watering — both too little and too much water will cause much the same effect. To keep your holiday plant in shape, remove it from its wrapper or container and water thoroughly only when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Take care not to let any water touch the sensitive leaves or flower stems. After the plant has drained thoroughly, return it to its container.

Anthurium

Anthurium

These gorgeous tropical flowering plants are known for their bright red, heart-shaped ‘flowers’ which are actually spathes, or a kind of leaf that grows from the base of a spike of flowers. (Anthurium flowers are the yellow spike in the middle.) What makes this holiday plant special is that with proper care, it can remain in almost continuous flower for weeks, with some blooms lasting two months or more.

Anthuriums grow best in medium to bright light (avoid direct sunlight, however.) Keep the soil consistently moist and for best results, use tepid water when watering. A consistently warm temperature is key to keeping this holiday plant looking its best, so avoid placing it near drafty doors or windows.

Phalaenopsis Orchid

Phalaenopsis orchid

Of course there are thousands of varieties of orchids to choose from, but most orchid gifts come in the form of the easy-to-grow Phalaenopsis (also known as the Moth orchid), which can bloom for up to 3 months. The plant flourishes indoors under normal lighting conditions and prefers the same temperatures that humans do.

Place your orchid in indirect sunlight and water once a week, making sure the soil remains moist just under the soil surface. Be careful not to overwater or the flowers will wilt and fall off. Orchids need good air circulation around the roots to prevent root rot, so make sure your decorative container leaves plenty of room for the plant to breath. And always remove the plant from its container when watering, returning it only after it has drained completely.

Christmas Cactus

Pink-blooming Christmas cactus

This beautiful flowering plant loves holidays. There are Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter varieties. Some bloom at Christmas and then again at Easter with proper care. Most times, people don’t know which kind they’re gifting, so your cactus may or may not rebloom after the initial holiday flush.

Christmas cacti thrive in bright, indirect light and cool temperatures, away from drafts and heat sources that can stunt growth and burn leaves. Christmas cactus varieties are tropical cacti and, unlike desert cacti, cannot tolerate dry soil. Keep the soil evenly moist for best results and water only when the top inch of the soil has dried out.

Gloxinia

Purple and white gloxinias

This holiday plant with its large bell-shaped blooms and gigantic fuzzy leaves is a show-stopper. Unfortunately, many people toss these holiday plants the moment they’ve stopped blooming. With proper care, however, gloxinias can become great houseplants, while continuing to bloom all winter.

Like orchids and cyclamens, gloxinias will start to wilt if they don’t like their environment. Unlike cyclamens, however, gloxinias prefer warmer temperatures and they thrive in partial sunlight. Ensure your gift has evenly moist soil and is placed in an area with high humidity (supplement humidity with an humidifier or tray with pebbles and water.) It’s important to keep the water off of the foliage when watering to avoid brown spot.

Gloxinias require a period of rest in order to bloom again. Once the flowers fade, your gift stands a chance of reblooming if you reduce watering by half and resume regular watering only when new growth begins to appear.

Amaryllis

Amaryllis just beginning to bloom

Who doesn’t love amaryllis with their gigantic trumpet-shaped flowers and ultra long stalks? Deep red is most common, but they also come in pink, salmon and white. Amaryllis naturally flower in winter, making them the perfect holiday plant. I’ve been gifted amaryllis in several forms’ as a bulb, pre-planted in a beautiful container and as a full-grown plant, nearly in bloom.

If you’ve received a gift of a bulb, place your amaryllis in a warm, sunny spot and water it thoroughly, making sure to drain the pot well after watering. After growth starts to appear, feed the bulb once a week with a bloom booster fertilizer. Once the flower buds start to develop, move the plant away from direct sunlight to prolong the life of the emerging blooms.

After the blooms have faded, remove the spent flowers so the plant doesn’t go to seed, but preserve the stalk. Wait until the stalk yellows before removing in order to furnish food for the bulb (and subsequent blooms.) Move the plant back to an area where it can receive plenty of bright sunlight. Click here for detailed information from the University of Minnesota on how to coach it to rebloom indoors the following winter.

Poinsettia

Poinsettias in the nursery

Like anthuriums, poinsettias’ flowers are actually bracts. The flower is the tiny cluster of yellow orbs in the center. While many people choose to toss this holiday plant after the festivities, I like to hang on to mine for a little bit longer.

Poinsettias fare better with lots of good air circulation. Remember to remove the foil wrapper (to prevent drowning your plant when you water it) and place the plastic pot on a saucer so water drains properly. Like all other holiday plants, poinsettias prefer a regular watering schedule, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings. Give your poinsettia plenty of sunlight to keep its colors looking bright and avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts.

For more information on some of the new exciting poinsettia hybrids that offer more than the traditional red or pink, click here for photos from the U.S. Botanic Garden’s holiday display.