The Color of Christmas
Poinsettias Come in More Varieties Than Red
We see mostly bright red, but there are way more choices than that – at UNH you can see 100 different varieties and choose your favorite.
You can thank Mr. Poinsett for the eponymous plants that bedeck our holidays. Joel Roberts Poinsett, our ambassador to Mexico in 1828, was enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. When he returned home, he brought the blooms with him and it wasn't long before the whole country was enchanted.
Poinsettias (the ending pronounced ee-uh or uh, your choice, though ee-uh is preferred, and BTW, no T after the N) have become a staple of Christmas over the years. People predictably pick red, with white a not-very-close second. But David Goudreault says we could all be far more adventurous.
Goudreault, the manager of the Macfarlane Greenhouses, a facility of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station at UNH, oversees the growing of more than 100 different kinds of poinsettias every year, many of them varieties that are newly created by plant breeders. "There's amazing diversity," he says, "much more than you would expect."
It starts with unending shades of red, pink and white – perhaps marbled or speckled, perhaps with leaves flat, pointed, round, drooping or variegated, perhaps with a prominent yellow center, perhaps not so prominent.
Then there are the ones other than red, white and pink -"novelties" in horticultural lingo. "One of the favorites is Ice Punch," Goudreault says. "Its red bract [the colorful leaf-like structure] has a white pattern through the center that looks like ice crystals. It's very striking."
Goudreault knows Ice Punch is a favorite because UNH each year invites the public into the greenhouses to see the many poinsettias that have been growing there since August and to choose their favorites in a range of categories: Overall, Red, White, Pink, Marble and Novelty. The open house will be held Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 1. It's co-hosted by the Thompson School Horticultural Facility, where many of the new poinsettia varieties will be on sale. For more information visit them on facebook and on the web.
"People come and see what's available," Goudreault says, "and hopefully that builds awareness and demand." Growers, garden centers and florists are interested in what the favorites are to inform their decisions about which varieties to focus on. Breeders are interested too.
UNH works with five poinsettia breeders, none of them located in New Hampshire. They supply the greenhouses with the more than 100 cultivars, some of them named (Holly Jolly Dark Red, Sparkling Punch and so on) but many just numbered. During the growing season, Goudreault and his colleagues evaluate the characteristics of each cultivar like the flowering response, vigor, height and bract color.
"It's expensive to breed poinsettias because millions have to be grown to be evaluated over the course of years," Goudreault says. "The goal is to find a stable pattern." He adds that, "like Apple," the horticultural industry likes to offer something new.
New Hampshire tends to the traditional – mostly red. But even reds come in a myriad of shades. The variety, Goudreault says, "is extraordinary."