by Jesse Smith
“This is a voluptuous one,” he said, stopping to finger the leaves of a poinsettia variety called ‘Vintage Red.’
Sutton is Display Designer for Longwood, a botanical garden in southeastern Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia; it is considered by many to be one of the world’s premier gardens. Sutton oversees events such as January’s Orchid Extravaganza and the Chrysanthemum Festival in fall. His biggest job is “A Longwood Christmas,” the annual explosion of lights, trees, poinsettias, and traffic that attracts the garden’s largest crowds.
The official theme of this year’s show is “A Gingerbread Fantasy.” Gingerbread cookies decorate trees in the conservatory’s Exhibition Hall. A fake gingerbread scent is pumped into the Music Room, which features trees made of gingerbread shingles, a train painted gingerbread brown, and gingerbread recreations of the conservatory and du Pont home. The Tropical Terrace exhibits plants that produce gingerbread ingredients: ginger, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves.
Themes like “A Gingerbread Fantasy” distinguish one Longwood Christmas from another. They provide a concept through which the Gardens can tweak the traditional holiday tropes of trees and lights. But a particular kind of artistry arises in the more subtle variations of the iconic poinsettias that appear year after year. This year, “A Longwood Christmas” features more than 2,000.
Sutton liked the number of rich red leaves on the ‘Vintage Red.’ A poinsettia does have flowers, but they’re small yellow nubs; the iconic red and white parts of the plants are actually modified leaves known as bracts. The ‘Vintage Red’ on display had several dense layers of red bracts. “Half the plant is colored-up,” Sutton said.
This ‘Vintage Red’ was part of a display demonstrating Longwood’s poinsettia trials. These 12 plants represented some of the poinsettia varieties Sutton is considering for displays in 2012 and beyond.
Sutton gets his pick of the poinsettia litter. Every year, he studies the new varieties offered by growers and brings some to Longwood. He grows three plants of each variety to evaluate on a variety of factors including color, density, and predictability. Not all poinsettias will develop their promised colors. ‘Christmas Feelings Dark Salmon,’ for example had lush red leaves, but also crisp white leaves, and some graphic leaves that were half red and half white.
Walking the row, Sutton stopped at a poinsettia that was largely speckled. This flecking was inconsistent across the plant’s leaves. “These are unstable flowers,” Sutton said. “The plant’s been bred too much, and it’s totally wrong. Can you imagine the main conservatory with this popping up,” he said, grabbing one leaf, “and this popping up,” he said, grabbing another with different colors and markings.
As a whole, 12 twelve varieties represented surprising diversity. ‘Ruby Frost,’ looked spindly and weak. ‘Sonora White Glitter’ had very even speckling. The domed bracts of ‘Mars Marble’ folded down ever so gently. ‘Kamp Burgundy’ displayed the deep, rich red of its namesake.
The exhibit’s most promising member was the stunning if unfortunately named ‘Luv U Pink.’ The bracts of ‘Luv’ exhibited a hot pink so vibrant it looked digital. The plant did not have the standard bush shape of most poinsettias, but instead undulated like a Japanese maple. Its bracts were smaller than most poinsettia leaves and were shaped like almonds. Visitors stopped at ‘Luv U Pink’ to take photographs with their cellphones.
“I think you’ll definitely see this one next year,” Sutton said.
Unlike the Christmas tree, the poinsettia has no religious connections to the holiday. Its status as a seasonal symbol is purely a commercial affair. Poinsettias, whose scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, are native to Mexico. The plant was brought to the United States by the country’s first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, in 1828. The next year, it was displayed to the public for the first time at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s inaugural Flower Show.
The ubiquity of the poinsettia is attributed to the Ecke family of California, growers who relentlessly marketed the poinsettia through magazine spreads and TV programs such as The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials. It continues today as a decoration on television sets — talk shows, sports shows, and soap opera. But it dominates in personal spheres: on work desks, by home front doors. Giant hardware stores such as Home Depot cram the plants onto large rolling racks by cash registers, where — in protective clear wrap and pots decorated with cheap red or green plastic — they represent an impulse buy. Today the poinsettia is the most popular potted plant in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Longwood Gardens has been growing poinsettias since the 1920s, though it has celebrated Christmas for more than a century. According to the encyclopedic A Longwood Gardens Christmas by Colvin Randall, founder Pierre du Point began giving gifts to his private employees in 1908, back when Longwood was a private estate. Pierre and wife Alice started hosting lavish Christmas parties for employees in 1921. After du Pont died in 1954, the Gardens became an exclusively public site, and Christmas at Longwood began a tradition that would eventually transform from a slow-season draw into the garden’s most popular attraction.
In 1955, one of four grape houses was dedicated, according to A Longwood Gardens Christmas, “to the growing of Poinsettia in considerably increased variety in order that future Christmas Poinsettia displays may become more outstanding and up to what might be expected of the Longwood Gardens’ poinsettia show.” These earlier plants were far different form the plants visitors see today. Images from the period show poinsettias with a few colored bracts topping long spindly stems.
Poinsettias on display at Longwood today are lush, dense plants. The conservatory’s Orangery includes poinsettia standards: these tree-shaped displays are single plants, one poinsettia grafted onto a stem large enough to support the weight of colorful orbs about three feet in diameter. These take two years to grow.
‘Visions of Grandeur’ poinsettias line paths throughout the conservatory, defining these spaces with rolling hedges of pink leaves. Elsewhere, ‘Eggnog’ plants take the poinsettia in a different decoration, its white, crinkled bracts rolling together into compact bursts of color that stand out against dark green leaves.
The poinsettia is an ingenious cultural artifact, a secular symbol of the most religious of holidays. It is simultaneously a product of nature and a largely standardized industrial product. In many ways, the poinsettia approaches kitsch. It is relatively cheap, requires minimal care, and is disposable. Unlike other popular potted plants like African violets or orchids, the poinsettia is not built to last. According to the University of Illinois’ Poinsettia Pages website, “With care, poinsettias should retain their beauty for weeks and some varieties will stay attractive for months.” And that’s “with care.” Inevitably, the plant meets its fate in the trashcan. The poinsettia is the plastic of the horticultural world.
That Longwood can do interesting work with the poinsettia is a bigger testament to the Christmas show’s artistry than the number of gingerbread cookies on display (8,000), the work-hours behind the gingerbread houses (350), or the size of the outdoor light display (500,000 bulbs). The successful display of poinsettias reaffirms Longwood’s status as one of the world’s preeminent gardens. More important, it reinforces the function of the botanical garden itself: This is not a passive repository of plants, but a site where plants are actively deployed for aesthetic purposes.
In the process, visitors are able to see poinsettia forms and colors and patterns they would never otherwise encounter — not because they’re exotic, but because they don’t generate revenue for the industry. In fact, Longwood maintains a stock of poinsettias so that it doesn’t lose varieties it likes — varieties that, say, work in both natural daylight and artificial light at night — if they’re taken out of commercial cultivation.
One might think that Longwood’s endorsement of a poinsettia variety would have value in the industry, but James Sutton said the commercial growers aren’t interested in what works for Longwood. Looking out across the Orangery, he pointed to the rows of ‘Visions of Grandeur,’ which climbed toward the conservatory’s high glass ceiling. Sutton needs some poinsettias to grow tall; short plants won’t work alongside the room’s tall columns. And growers don’t want tall plants.
The reason speaks as much to Longwood’s unique place as it does to the intersection of nature, holidays, and capitalism: “It won’t ship, and that’s not going to work for Wal-Mart.”
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.