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2theadvocate > News > Popular Mexican plant subject of open house 12/12/05

Popular Mexican plant subject of open house


Advocate staff photos by TRAVIS SPRADLING
LSU research associate Patricia Branch, left, and horticulture professor Jeff Kuehny show off some of the poinsettias to be displayed at an open house Thursday.
Pronounce the name "poin-setta" or "poin-set-ia." Either is correct. No matter how you say it, the poinsettia is the flower of the hour.

When an old nurseryman was asked for the right way to say the name of a certain border plant, he said, "Well, if you call liriope "la-ry-o-pee, you can charge more."

Either way you say poinsettia, the Christmas plant has a wholesale value in the United States of $300 million. There are thousands of growers in the United States and Canada.

Pre-Katrina, the 200 growers in Louisiana generated a wholesale poinsettia crop of $2.5 million.

"Quite a few growers were hurt by Katrina," said Jeff Kuehny, LSU professor of horticulture.

 
Poinsettias are grown in greenhouses in every state, Kuehny said. Though a seasonal crop, the poinsettia's Christmas volume makes it the No. 1 pot plant in the U.S. floriculture market.

Baton Rouge gardeners get a look at new varieties of poinsettias Thursday at the Burden Research Center, Essen Lane at Interstate 10. There will be 20 varieties on display from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the Ione E. Burden Conference Center.

Along with the poinsettia open house, Kuehny and Patricia Branch, a 25-year research associate at LSU, will give a talk on poinsettias at the conference center.

The talk is part of the "Through the Garden Gate" lunchtime series sponsored by Hilltop Arboretum, Burden and LSU horticulture. The 30-minute presentation starts at 12:15 p.m. Guests are encouraged to bring a sack lunch. No lunch is provided. Admission is $5 a person; students with IDs will be admitted free.

A limited number of poinsettias at local retail prices will be available for purchase Thursday.

The open house features the cultivars of two suppliers, Fischer of Boulder, Colo., and Ecke of Encinitas, Calif.

From the early 1920s to the mid-1960s, the main business of Paul Ecke's ranch was growing poinsettias in fields, harvesting the plants in the spring and shipping them by rail to greenhouse growers across the country.

Then, Ecke followed the railroad tracks to promote poinsettias as Christmas flowers.

Ecke's poinsettia fields two hours south of Los Angeles provide growing conditions like those of Mexico where the leggy, red plants grow wild.

The Aztecs found the plant blooming in the highlands of Southern Mexico in the short days of winter. From the poinsettia's bracts (colored leaves), the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye used to make cosmetics and color cloth. A milky substance taken from the plant was used to treat fever.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, son of a French physician, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) and a botanist, saw cuetlaxochitl growing in Taxco del Alarcon in 1828. Poinsett shipped some of the plants to his greenhouses in Greenville, S.C. Poinsett propagated the plants to send to friends and botanical gardens.

The plant's botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means "the most beautiful Euphorbia." By 1836, the plant was commonly called poinsettia after the former U.S. ambassador who had moved on to found what became the Smithsonian Institution.