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From ragged red umbrellas to lakes of coral and cream, southern California’s poinsettia has revolutionized the holiday landscape
A STORY: IT IS NOVEMBER, AND I HAVE RECENTLY ARRIVED in Mid Wilshire, another emigre from the chill Northeast. The room I use for writing looks out on what I now recognize, a dozen years later, as a classic L.A. view. There is a chain-link fence struggling to contain a tide of greenery, a garage masquerading as a hacienda, a dented dumpster. The scene has some of the exotic banality, the effulgent poverty, the “ragged semi-squalor of a half tropical lane,” that D.H. Lawrence loved in Oaxaca. It also has something else that Lawrence encountered there: a “naked tree, sprouting into spiky scarlet flowers.” Like visitors before and after, he was startled that anything so intense could bloom in the dark of winter. They call them, he noted, “Noche Buenas, flowers of Christmas Eve.”
Outside my window, spray after spray of long-armed red stars is arching over dumpster and fence and terra-cotta roof. They look like fireworks frozen in mid burst. They also look like poinsettias, or would if the flowers had cut loose from the florist’s pots, had flown through the air, shrinking a bit in the hot Santa Ana breeze, and had reattached themselves to the ends of a 12-foot tangle of rebar. They are poinsettias, and they astonish me. The flame-tipped tree seems to be growing out of solid concrete, seems not to know that winter’s coming. This giant poinsettia marks the first of many opportunities I will have as a new Angeleno to rewrite my expectations. I take it as a sign that I, too, will be able to put down roots.
A REGIONAL NOTE: Californians are correct. Poinsettia is properly pronounced “poyn-set-ee-ah.” From the Midwest east, people tend to drop the “ee” and say “poyn-set-tuh.”
The flower’s no more a native than I am—it originated in Mexico—but its image is entwined with the city’s. Greater Los Angeles boasts 12 streets named Poinsettia. Hollywood High’s yearbook is called Poinsettia. Every December hundreds of thousands of descendants of plants that had begun to naturalize here more than a century ago fill homes and public buildings around the world, their tender flamboyance a lush, feminine antidote to traditional, prickly holiday greens. Poinsettia growers like to point out that the properly named Euphorbia pulcherrirna—which translates as a “very beautiful” representative of the spurge family—has in the last decade surpassed chrysanthemums as America’s most-bought potted flower. But the market share that interests me more is that of the imagination.
The poinsettia, in its popularity, has become Southern California’s revenge on white Christmases. Its extravagantly sized flower, its rogue brilliance, stand in rebuttal to Currier and Ives and every other culturally ingrained template that suggests there’s something unseasonable about a day of 80-degree bliss cut short by a 5 p.m. sunset; something overwrought about turquoise bays and yellow hills; something borderline immoral about cooking Christmas dinner on an outdoor grill.
I love the word naturalize, its happy interplay of Zen and Disney, authenticity and special effects. A naturalized specimen—plant or person—is no accidental stray but a willing emigrant. Accepting the risks of transformation, it flourishes both as itself and as something other than it was at home. Such reinvention is a specialty of this city, yet more than willingness or a compatible climate must have been required to turn a leggy Mexican weed into a multimillion-dollar emblem.
A HISTORICAL NOTE: In the poinsettia’s southern Mexican homeland, where the Aztecs admired it as a symbol of dead warriors, the wild shrubs are so persistent in the face of neglect that leafless groves have been recorded blooming, like so many sacrificial victims, on the slopes of a volcano.
Exactly when the plants settled here is not clean nor is the route they took. Possibly they came north with the missions: 17th-century observers recorded Franciscan fathers at Taxco’s Church of Santa Prisca using the flowers in Christmas celebrations. They might have arrived with the Californios’ brides, along with nasturtiums and angel’s trumpet. They might have escaped from a Pasadena conservatory, having first been carried from Boston or Edinburgh in the sealed glass box known as a Wardian case. This last isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Invented by a London surgeon in 1829, a year or so after Joel Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico, brought poinsettias to his South Carolina plantation, the terrarium-like cases revolutionized the work of global plant collectors as well as nurserymen.
By the middle of the 19th century, Poinsett’s flower was being grown as a pot plant in glasshouses on both sides of the Atlantic. The growers were not only estate gardeners. After Britain abolished the glass tax in 1845, its middle class turned enthusiastically to greenhouse cultivation. John McLaren’s manual of California gardening, first published in 1908, also contains instructions for a small plant room “attached to the dwelling, house” and a timetable for potting up the poinsettia cuttings to ensure December bloom. Meanwhile, commercial poinsettia-growing focused on the cut-flower trade, whose expansion was aided by the development of the refrigerated railroad car. Los Angeles’s pioneer grower was Albert Ecke, who emigrated from Switzerland to Eagle Rock in 1902 and, like other refugees from cold climates, fell for the bursts of December red. By the “20s the Ecke family fields—full of man-high plants with dinner plate-size heads—had spread through Hollywood, down Sunset to Sepulveda.
A FACT: The red parts of the poinsettia aren’t flowers at all, but a kind of leaf called a bract. The true flowers are the yellow and green nubs at the center.
A confession: I am currently contemplating a purchase—a string of poinsettia-shaped holiday lights, the bracts mock velvet, the centers fiber-optic sprays. Seen on the catalog page next to an arrangement of candles and greenery, they exude a Victorian opulence, suitable to festivities involving little girls in lace-collared dresses, claret in crystal, mock-Tudor turrets. It’s not the life I want but the luxe itself, the red that D.H. Lawrence described as both “sure” and “stainless.”
I also want to understand how a single flower can lend itself to so many different fantasies. Because if you look at pictures of late-Victorian L.A., the poinsettia trees that unfold like ragged umbrellas in sheltered corners of shingle-and-stone mansions are irrepressible. If the architect feels he must preserve the strict proprieties of Chicago or Albany, the landscaper cannot resist a few wanton displays of delight in the possibilities of the California climate. Twenty years later, as the fashion for Spanish style proliferates, the poinsettia is striking a more sophisticated note. Framed against a stucco wall, its Iberian red and angular silhouette become architectural features in themselves, the severely perfect complement to purple bougainvillea and blue-green agave.
A THEORY: The appearance of flowers on bare stems is what makes the poinsettia, to outlanders, so surprising. It isn’t as if an English or a Chicago spring isn’t full of the tutu-on-scaffolding effect of petals on bare branches. Cherry blossoms, tulip magnolias—hese are demure heralds of the leafiness to come. A poinsettia’s inflorescences, on the other hand, are an end rather than a beginning. They continue to wave boldly, sometimes for months, lipstick red and fleshy, long after all the leaves have dropped away.
Lipstick red, as anyone who walks through the downtown flower market in December knows, does not begin to describe poinsettias anymore. There are enough shades of pearl, flesh, gold, and madder to inspire Estee Lauder for seasons on end. Pastels occur naturally in the poinsettia world: They’ve been grown for the better part of a century, particularly in South Africa and Hawaii. That an explosion of these shades occurred in the 1960s, however, when otherwise sober people were covering kitchen counters in boomerang-patterned pink-and-charcoal Formica, was no accident. As America’s suburbs were morphing into a kind of mass California-ization with pale, sun-drenched interiors and a blurring of indoors and out through patios and plants, poinsettias were morphing, too, from holiday items to cool-season accessories.
Four decades of intensive breeding, begun by Paul Ecke (Albert’s son), had persuaded the Southland field flower to bloom on schedule in northern greenhouses. Paul’s son had become a master of product placement, with Bob Hope’s Christmas specials often cited as the high-water mark of E. pulcherrima consciousness. After the nation had seen Hope in a lake of red, it was difficult for it to be satisfied with just one pot. A horticultural breakthrough in 1962 resulted in a sturdy strain able to hold on to its leaves and flowers for weeks in an overheated home. The way was thus paved for the poinsettia to emerge as international pot star, what the play Tru referred to as the Robert Goulet of the plant world. Traditionalists today have their stairways lined with scarlet, and the rest of us have our marbled pink and white, our glowing salmon, our mauve-flecked crimson so reminiscent of vintage linoleum—he colors, in other words, that blend with swimming-pool turquoise for an Angeleno Christmas scheme.
A SUCCESS STORY: The Paul Ecke Ranch, now in Encinitas, develops about 80 percent of the plant stock that nurseries in other parts of the world grow for the holiday rush. This year’s introduction, neatly playing both to the interest in ’50s furnishing and to the catalog baronialism that’s supposed to confer the aura of old money on new millionaires, is called Plum Pudding. It’s being marketed as the world’s first purple poinsettia.
Once I’d acquired a Los Angeles garden, I couldn’t wait to plant a poinsettia tree. The Olympian Sunset Western Garden Book, necessary companion in a city that encompasses seven different climate zones, was mildly disapproving: “coarse” and “stiffly upright” figured prominently in its description. Nurseries I approached looked at me like I was nuts. “Plant the potted kind and see what happens,” they suggested. I did; they died. I asked the Ecke Ranch spokeswoman about this, and she explained that modern poinsettias are designed to grow in greenhouses, even in mild Encinitas. Still, she said, there are a few Ecke fields devoted to outdoor plants, and in the last couple of years the ranch has begun to receive inquiries about landscape poinsettias. Not many, but then gardening, like any other fashion, rides a seesaw between wild and tame, embracing innovation only to rediscover tradition, finding in so much pot-bound order the lure of leggy anarchy. So keep your fingers crossed. Another decade may see naked trees back on Sunset Boulevard, strutting their lanky, red-lipped, low-light stuff.