ST. LOUIS — It took more than two years in a Missouri Botanical Garden greenhouse to bring to life a seldom-seen variety of the most Christmas-y of plants, one that bears the name of our city — the St. Louis Red poinsettia.
The plant doesn’t look like the poinsettias that have been a staple of holiday decorating for more than 50 years. The St. Louis Red isn’t going to sit neatly atop a mantel, or as a centerpiece at the dinner table.
No, it wants to be big. As in, up to 12 feet high.
“This is a plant that wants to become a large shrub. It wants to ramble and grow wild,” said Josh Higgins, the Garden horticulturalist who grew it from a historical cutting into the towering plant on display there for the first time. It’s part of the Gardenland Express, near the entrance in the Ridgway Visitor Center.
Its bracts, the colorful parts of the plant that most of us incorrectly refer to as flowers, are not the deep red hue of more traditional poinsettias.
“It is a very true red, which is why this plant received so much attention when the variety was discovered and brought forward by Louis Bourdet,” Higgins said.
Bourdet first marketed the plant as the St. Louis Red in 1924, according to the United States Botanic Garden.
Other than its name, which the businessman Bourdet chose to pay homage to his birthplace, it has no tie to St. Louis, Higgins said. Like all poinsettias, it’s not tough enough to survive winters here.
From the 1920s and into the early 1960s, basically every poinsettia available in the United States and Europe was a cutting or clone of the St. Louis Red, Higgins said. They were displayed as cut flowers, with a single stem topped off with a big bract.
“Through the decades, varieties have become quicker to grow and easier to maintain than the St. Louis Red would have been,” said David Trinklein, an adjunct associate professor of plant sciences and state floriculture specialist at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The Paul Ecke family is credited with making the poinsettia synonymous with Christmas from its ranch in southern California. It’s from their collection of historical plants that Higgins got a St. Louis Red cutting, more than 100 years old, used to grow the plant on display at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Higgins got the cutting — three sticks, each about 2 feet long — in June 2017. He kept it warm and well lit in a greenhouse, watered with drip irrigation.
“It was a small, slow-growing plant,” Higgins said.
He got it to its size of more than 6 feet tall through a training and pruning process that included “pinching” it, which means clipping the growing points to get them to branch off, Higgins said.
This year, it sprouted all kinds of brilliant red bracts, Higgins said. But unlike most poinsettias, it will drop all its leaves in late January or early February as it begins a dormancy period.
So the St. Louis Red is set to remain on display until Jan. 1, fulfilling its poinsettia holiday duty before turning drab.
Finding the plant until then shouldn’t be difficult.
“You can’t miss it,” said Higgins. “It towers over everything else in the show.”
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