Picking a poinsettia

Poinsettias may traditionally be red, but as I learned on a recent visit to Homewood Nursery and Garden Center, these holiday decorating staples come in many colors.

Unlike many flowering shrubs (yes, poinsettia is a shrub), their color doesn’t come from the flowers.  The colorful part is a bract, or modified leaf.  

I have a cat who loves to eat plants, so I’ve never bought poinsettias because I thought they were poisonous.  I thought wrong. The American Veterianary Medical Assocaition says they can cause a skin irriation but rates them a lower risk than other holiday plants. While people shouldn’t eat them either, Poison Control says the plant “can be irritating but it is not fatal if eaten.”  The sap can cause a skin rash on people wo are allergic to latex, since both have some of the same proteins.

Homewood started growing poinsettias in the 1970s, raising about 1,000 plants for their customers. Now they grow more than 30,000 poinsettias each year. The nursery offers a fundraiser and early order program, working with community groups who place bulk orders for discounted plants. 

Red is the most popular color, but the decision of which shade of red to choose can be overwhelming. The shades of red vary from the tradidtional scarlet red to a bright red and everything in between. Their next most popular color is white, but not the traditional creamy white.  Plant breeders have worked to develop a true white, which is popular with Homewood’s customers.

After white and red, the choices vary including shades of pink and yellow. Some have bracts with splashes of color and others that look marbled. Even the leaf shape can vary. 

North Carolina State University has been evaluating poinsettias since 1993. Their website lists 232 cultivars being evaluated, including plenty with red bracts. The university works with Homewood and other nurseries to research and evaluate different varieties. Each year the nursery gives its customers a chance to vote on their favorite variety.  According to a longtime employee, they “vote for the weirdest color but take home red.”

During the weeks after Thanksgiving, Homewood will sell 1,000 plants every day. Walking through the rows of displays looking to buy my first poinsettia, I found shrubs in every size and prices ranging from less than $10 to almost $60. They even had hanging baskets of poinsettias, which I’d never seen before. Turns out I’m like most of Homewood’s customers – I brought home a red poinsettia.

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