As a little boy traveling in the family car down the Coast Highway of Southern California, I would gaze out the car window at the passing countryside. It was the early 1950’s and we were on our way to visit the San Diego Zoo. This was before the freeways and the trip took about 2 hours driving from our home in Orange County. Back then the countryside was just that - countryside, not the non-stop stretch of housing developments, shopping centers and sprawl that's there today. But just as we passed Oceanside, I could see patches of bright red filling the fields near neat greenhouses lined up in rows. These were the poinsettia fields of the Ecke Ranch.
We also grew poinsettias at home, on the side of the house that had a thin strip of land between us and our neighbors. In this small spot my older brother decided to plant poinsettias. He would cut off short pieces of the long, tubular stems that resembled bamboo canes. They would root quickly and shoot 8 to 10 feet in the air, and leaves would emerge along the stem. At the top, a starburst of thin leaves would radiate from a center filled with round buds about the size of peas.
With the coming of fall, the thin leaves in the starburst would begin to change color, from green to bright red; my brothers and I thought they looked like red feathers. Within weeks, the sunburst became a radiant red flower and the round buds turned a bright yellow. We did nothing to cause the change in color of those “petals” - it just happened.
At Christmastime, we would cut bunches for bouquets. The white milky sap would be pretty messy, so we would pass the ends of the cut canes over a flame to seal the wounds. But it wasn’t long before the red bracts that we thought were petals began to fall.
As I look at the many beautiful varieties of modern poinsettias that we grow today, I am amazed at how different they really are from their predecessors from the desert gardens of California. But the plants then were still very special. I often miss the sunburst flowers with the long, thin bracts and the masses of round yellow flower buds. They were spectacular in their own way to little boys living in much simpler times.