Poinsettias: Purity and Flower of the Noche Buena

December 20th, 2014

PHOTO: The “poinsettia house” at the Plant Barn in Chico, where (including the many years under the umbrella of Chico Propagators) poinsettias have been cultivated for a dozen winters or more. Most good nurseries and garden centers will have greenhouse sections dedicated to the plants - to visit the warm, moist greenhouse filled with seasonal color this year is strong therapy for the weary or skeptical.

The winter holidays are upon us ready or not. A week or so ago, late in the day in some dreadful place, I found myself waiting in a line to purchase something I must have needed – and staring at a somewhat out of place poinsettia. I recall thinking: that’s sort of an odd place for a poinsettia, poinsettias ARE a little odd - What is a poinsettia even?

PHOTO: Bold red traditional poinsettias - this one is ‘Cortez Early Red’.

In my childhood, I remember sensing that poinsettias were special, sacred and reserved for winter holiday celebrations. They were ordered from the nursery in advance, wrapped carefully to protect them from cold drafts, and set in places of honor: altars, entries, dinner table centerpieces.

PHOTO: Many shades of white, cream and even yellow poinsettias are grown. Shown here ‘Polar Bear’.

Now – they can seem ubiquitous - native to malls, grocery stores and bank countertops everywhere during the commercial holiday corridor from Halloween to New Year’s day. In our culture’s general overabundance and over-commercialization, poinsettias can almost seem like they aren’t even plants.

Ahhh. A little minor skepticism got to me for a minute there.

PHOTO: Poinsettia ‘Carousel Red’.

I’m glad to tell you that my love of plants, combined with my love of the meanings and stories and feelings behind the holidays that enrich our short dark winter days brought me back around, and sincere curiosity took over. What IS a poinsettia and why ARE they associated with Christmas?

Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia family and like other euphorbias, they have milky sap when you break their stems, they grow like weeds in their native areas and the most attractive aspect of them is not their flowers but their showy bracts – or modified leaves, which turn colors in response to the plant flowering.

PHOTO: The tiny flowers of a poinsettia.

Look closely, the poinsettia flowers are really understated little clusters of small yellow green blooms in the center of the sea of colorful bracts. In the case of the most commonly cultivated poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), this bloom time naturally falls in December.

Native to southern Mexico, where they can be weedy, they can also be cultivated as small tropical trees reaching heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across.

PHOTO: One of the many pink poinsettias.

The recorded folklore of poinsettias stretches back to the Aztecs, for whom the red color symbolized purity and they used poinsettia leaves to dye fabric and the sap for medicinal purposes such as controlling fevers. In Christian traditions of Mexico and Guatemala, the poinsettia is called (translated) the “Flower of the Holy Night”, and is associated with both the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and with Christmas Eve, when legend has it centuries ago a peasant girl, having nothing else, brought weeds collected from the side of the road to offer at her church altar. As a Christmas miracle, the weeds turned bright red and green before the congregation’s eyes.

PHOTO: Poinsettias ‘Christmas Feelings red Cinnamon’.

The poinsettia is named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, and an amateur botanist who introduced it to the US in 1828, where with time and greenhouse cultivation, it gained acceptance as a holiday plant. While it has been cultivated for many years as a winter specialty plant, it was not until the 1960s that plantsmen bred poinsettias that would hold their bloom (and color) for a long time. Now 100s of varieties of poinsettias in red, white, pink, salmon, and yellow, with double, striped, speckled and wavy forms are available.

PHOTO: Poinsettias are known as the Christmas Star flower due to the star shape often created by their bract patterning.

Also known as the Christmas Star and Christmas Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Winter Rose, Noche Buena, the poinsettia as a harbinger of the winter holidays is here to stay. Want a little holiday magic and mystery and cheer? Really look at the intricate beauty of a poinsettia near you - with all of the history it carries with it.

Like the winter holidays themselves, there is meaning to be uncovered, cultivated and cherished.

Caring for winter poinsettias are relatively easy to take care of, they will hold their color for a long time if kept damp - not wet - in bright - not direct light. Protect them from large fluctuations in temperature - too hot or too cold.

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In a North State Garden is a twice-monthly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs two weekends a month on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.

Persimmons - Gifts of the Season & December in the North State Garden

November 28th, 2014

as I eat a persimmon

the bell starts ringing

at Horyuji Temple

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

PHOTOS above: firm rounded persimmon ripening at the Genetic Resource and Conservation Center, also known as the Tree Farm, in Chico.

Persimmon have long represented both the divine and the worldly delights in many cultures. These colorful, tasty and seasonal fruits rank high among the marvels of the North State Garden in early winter. And not just the persimmon, as if there were just one – but the whole range of them available to us from late fall and into the New Year: the fuyugaki (generally shortened to fuyu), which is apple shaped and can be eaten when still firm without fear of bitterness; the hachiya, which is the more heart shaped and full-bodied one, eaten only when very very ripe (generally after cold nighttime temperatures have sweetened them) and almost jelly-like inside; and the so-called chocolate persimmon or maru, which is prized for its cinnamon colored flesh, to mention just three. Read the rest of this entry »

Wreaths & Greens of the Season 2014

November 24th, 2014

The beauty of the garden in winter is a unique pleasure: fragrant, fresh evergreens, bright berries, frosty mornings. Photo: Frosty Indian hawthorne on a cold North State morning.

Seasonal greens, winter fruits, and sculptural cones have long been associated with the winter holidays–with brightening shortened days and long nights, with the universal hope for the return of the light, and symbolic wishes of prosperity for the coming fresh start of the new year. Photo: Seasonal wreath of North State pomegranates. Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing it to Life: Altacal Audubon’s Backyard Habitat Certification Program

November 15th, 2014

This time of year is marked for me by the early morning calling of a great horned owl, who roosts (and hunts) from a line of blue oaks at the end of my garden. In the mid-day, the sound of hummingbird activity still dominates – nectaring in the last of the lavender and salvia, and hunting for bugs among the blue oaks’ falling leaves, along with cheerful little crews of bushtits enjoying their own foraging. The sweet simple call of the white crowned sparrow punctuates the heat of the day, and if I ever lose track of which season is upon us, the song of fall and winter’s flicker reminds me. Read the rest of this entry »

Timing: November in the Garden & North State Calendar of Regional Gardening Events

November 1st, 2014

PHOTO: Autumnal bumble bees resting in an an aster.

Timing is everything isn’t it? It’s as true in baseball as it is in politics as it is in the garden. Good timing, and an intuitive understanding of timing, makes everything you do or are preparing to do, come along more easily.

PHOTO: Fall trees. Read the rest of this entry »

Legacy: October & The North State Calendar of Gardening Events

September 27th, 2014


As I compose this month’s calendar piece two things are foremost in my mind. The first is that it is raining. Really raining and the sound and smell and light of this much anticipated seasonal weather has a forceful and visceral effect on me and my outlook. While not a drought ending rain, it’s certainly a welcome easing of us and our gardens from late summer into fall.

PHOTO: Me and my paternal aunt Diana Bingham left, and maternal aunt Bettina Balding Blackford at a gardening symposium at White Flower Farm in Litchfield Connecticut in 2003. Read the rest of this entry »

A New Rose Garden in Chico, the City of Roses

September 22nd, 2014

Rose gardens are among the most ancient and storied of cultivated gardens in human history - along with physic gardens. Roses themselves are among the most storied of flowers. And our North State Mediterranean climate actually provides some remarkably good rose growing conditions. Which is lucky for all those rose-lovers out there. Read the rest of this entry »

September in the Garden & North State Calendar of Regional Gardening Events

August 30th, 2014

PHOTO: Ripe Ribes sp. (roezlii?).

September in the North State garden begins in earnest our biggest and best window of opportunity to plant in our gardens. From mid-September to the end of October, from Davis to Redding, a generous number of arboreta, plant societies and nurseries will host plant sales to get us started on our annual garden additions. From perennials to fall and winter vegetables, from trees to shrubs and vines and bulbs and even the broadcasting of annual wildflower seeds, from drought tolerant natives to fruit trees – now begins the best time for us North State Gardeners to dream it, plan it and plant it. Read the rest of this entry »

Succeeding with Natives - Mt. Lassen CNPS Horticulture Symposium September 14

August 17th, 2014

On Sunday September 14th, 2014 the Mt. Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society will host a day-long symposium on designing your garden space to include more native plants while at the same time using far less water, creating far less maintenance for yourself, and having more life and beauty than you’ve had till now (registration on-line at: mountlassen.cnps.org) Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of an Empress, August in the Garden & North State Calendar of Regional Gardening Events

August 3rd, 2014

I never did get a get picture of her. Not a drive-by snap shot, not a proper portrait. Despite regularly remarking on how lovely she was. And now that she’s gone – with the others – I go out of my way to avoid driving where I used to see her. Why bother? It’s painful to see the gaping hole, painful to know I had never taken the time to get a good photograph of this beautiful life by which I seasonally marked my place in time and space. She was a marker on my internal compass and now she is gone. I am regretful, wondering if I perhaps I never acknowledged her or appreciated her enough. Read the rest of this entry »