The Truth About Poinsettias

There is a dirty secret in the plant industry and I thought I’d let you in on it. No one likes poinsettias! Independent garden centers don’t like them because the big box stores (Home Depot, Lowes, etc) take the lowest end plants and flood the market so there is no profit for an independent garden center to make. These inferior versions are bought by their customers and then thrown in the garbage a week or two later when they die from over watering or neglect. Most people look at them as nothing more than a Christmas decoration to be tossed after New Year’s Eve.

In the plant industry they are known as “throw away plants” – the box stores toss out more poorly-developed plants in one season than most independent garden centers sell in a decade. This is the puppy mill for plants. It’s a shame, because you are missing out on a wonderful plant.

My first encounter with “Christmas Star” or “Christmas Flower”, as poinsettias are also known, was as a kid in my dad’s garden center. All the gardens in my neighborhood had turned brown and grey, and the trees had given their last fall colors away to cold November’s bite. Yet inside his warm greenhouse in the weeks leading up to Christmas was an amazing display of brightly-colored reds, whites, and pinks.

When I was a boy in that greenhouse of color there was a Spanish man who would sell us these beautiful poinsettias from the back of his old Jeep station wagon. One day he asked me if I knew how poinsettias came to be. Being half-Colombian like most Latinos we are cultural drawn to fantastical stories that take the everyday life to a special place in the heart and our imagination. I replied “no”

He smiled and said “a girl, beautiful Maria, not much younger than you are, was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. As she left the chapel every day after prayer she would always become sad. Her father seeing this tried to cheer her up and said ‘even the smallest gift given by someone who loves him will make Jesus happy. ‘ On her way to church the next day an angel appeared to her and told her to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Maria did as the angel said and placed them at the nativity in front of the Baby Jesus. Suddenly crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias. Everyone was sure they had seen a miracle and so they were named Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night).

I remembered this story many years later while visiting Chile, gazing at thirteen foot tall Flores de Noche Buena gracing an archway with the stunning blue water of Valparaiso’s bay shining in the background. My fellow travelers, by then accustomed to me stopping to take pictures of brightly-colored foliage and tropical plants not found in New York, asked what I was staring at, to which I replied “a poinsettia”. They too had never seen one that big – it was a curiosity to us all but common in warmer climates.

Today I sell high quality poinsettias that have strong, well developed root systems that are hardier than the inferior box and supermarket varieties. Properly cared for, my plants can last years and produce surprisingly well in the hot summer heat. I mix them in containers with geraniums and it is a combination that always turns heads.

When I see the dumpsters in the box stores overflowing with dead Flores de Noche Buena the independent garden center owner part of me gets angry. The other part remembers the story of Maria’s Miracle and the delight and surprise on my customers faces when they tell their poinsettia is thriving a year later and I smile.