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'Premium Picasso' (left) and 'Jingle Bell' (right) pointsettias.

Poinsettias Flourish at the U.S. Botanic Garden

If you stop by the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) through New Year's Day, you can see 'Jingle Bell' (pictured, above right) and 'Jingle Bell Rock' that are red with pink or white splashes. You might also enjoy finding 'Peppermint Ruffles' with its pink tones or 'Autumn Leaves' displaying unexpected peaches and golds. These are just a few of the more than 30 varieties of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima and hybrids) in the USBG's 2017 poinsettia display.

Poinsettia display at the United States Botanic Garden.

Poinsettia display at the United States Botanic Garden.

The gardeners have grown more than 3,000 poinsettia plants to brighten up the Conservatory's annual holiday exhibit "Season's Greenings: Roadside Attractions" and celebrate the stories of this plant that is now closely tied to American winter holidays. But this wasn't always the case. It has just been in the last 50 years that the poinsettia has crossed into mass production and become a staple in American homes every December.

The poinsettia is native to the deciduous tropical forest of the Pacific coast of southern Mexico. There it grows as a large, lanky shrub reaching up to 30 feet in height, where it blooms in late fall. The plant's common name refers to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who sent seeds and samples of the plant back to the United States in the late 1820s.

During the 1800s, the poinsettia was a greenhouse curiosity often used as a short lived, but distinctive, red cut flower. It wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s that additional colors were brought into the trade. In the 1960s, the introduction of varieties that produced bushy, compact plants led to mass production and marketing. Breeders continue to develop long-lasting poinsettias, and more than 100 new cultivars are in development.

Lots of care and patience
For gardeners, poinsettias are one of the most nail-biting crops to grow. There is a lot of pressure in making it a perfect yield. Typically, poinsettia crops require a very specific date for coloring up and looking spectacular. At the USBG, an expert team of gardeners cares for the annual poinsettia crop with daily attentiveness starting in July. A myriad of challenges lurk along the way including insects, diseases, watering challenges, and light infiltration during the time when the plant requires unbroken darkness — so many things can ruin the crop.

Gardener Dyanne Avery leads the nurturing of the poinsettia crop, with the help and support of the entire Exhibits and Displays team. More than a half-dozen gardeners from this team use their extensive horticultural knowledge and experience to ensure this holiday crop is ready for its big debut in late November.

USBG creates new cultivar
Most consumers will never see the tall, leafless plant from Mexico that most modern poinsettias come from. Thanks to a new variety created by USBG Plant Curator Bill McLaughlin, visitors can now get a sense of the poinsettia's original form. McLaughlin used two heirloom cultivars, 'Oak Leaf' and 'St. Louis,' to create new, unnamed poinsettia cultivars that show characteristics similar to the original Euphorbia pulcherrima plants. These original plants and the newly created USBG cultivars are taller, with lower leaves that fall off more quickly than in commercial cultivars.

"I wanted to be able to provide visitors a sense of the wild forms of the plant, which are generally unavailable today," said McLaughlin. "This new crossing gives a strong visual contrast with its long, lanky and leafless stems in comparison to the modern compact and leafy showpiece that can tolerate typical indoor house conditions.

"By making these crosses with old, heirloom varieties, we are taking the plants back toward the wild types that might be found in the wild in Mexico."

Living history on display
The USBG's poinsettia display showcases poinsettia history: heirlooms and popular cultivars from the early 1900s, interesting stories and varieties from the past 50 years, and more than 15 new varieties that are just now appearing for sale in garden centers or are still being trialed and could become available in the next few years.

'Euphorbia cornastra' at the USBG.

"Euphorbia cornastra" at the USBG.

Of these new varieties, few have produced more questions and comments than the new Princettia® and Luv U series hybrids. The hybrids display a profusion of brighter floral bracts (the colorful leaves that frequently get mistaken for poinsettia flowers) ranging from intense red and pink colors to pure white with smaller, darker leaves than traditional poinsettias. They are a cross between Euphorbia pulcherrima and Euphorbia cornastra.

The E. cornastra is also a tall, lanky shrub native to Mexico, but with small, bright white bracts. While the new hybrid crosses are beginning to appear on the market for sale, few people get to see the other "parent" plant itself. Two years ago, the USBG was able to acquire a seed for the E. cornastra, which it has successfully grown. This year for the first time, the USBG has a blooming plant on display alongside the poinsettia hybrids created from it. It is one of the few places in the United States where visitors can see this plant.

New poinsettia hybrid 'Luv U Hot Pink.'

New poinsettia hybrid 'Luv U Hot Pink.'

This new line of breeding has reinvigorated the holiday popular crop with its brighter colors and abundance of bracts. Come see six of these new hybrid cultivars in the USBG display, and maybe locate gardener Dyanne Avery's "splashy" favorite named 'Premium Picasso.' We think you’ll find your own new favorite variety in this beautiful plant exhibit on display through January 1, 2018.

For more information about visiting the USBG during the holidays, visit www.usbg.gov/seasonsgreenings.

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