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Gardeners weigh in on unconventional poinsettia colors

Poinsettias can be spray-dyed a variety of vibrant colors. Mike Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 3
The traditional red pointsettia continues to be a holiday favorite. Mike Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
Don Kinzler, Growing Together gardening columnist for The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 3

I recently stirred the Facebook pot a bit and asked people's opinions of the newer poinsettia colors, like orange, bright blue and lavender.

Never let it be said that gardeners don't relish a good controversy.

The red poinsettia, of course, has long been the traditional Christmas flower, thanks to the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, who brought it to this country in 1828. Poinsett was more interested in botany than politics, and he was so fascinated by the red-bloomed Central American native that he took cuttings back to his South Carolina greenhouse. It soon entered the commercial plant trade and became known as the poinsettia, after the botanist who recognized its potential.

In fact, Dec. 12 has been National Poinsettia Day since the mid-1800s, marking the anniversary of Poinsett's death.

The poinsettia develops its colorful bracts in response to winter's short days and long, dark nights. Winter's shortest day naturally coincides with the Christmas season, making the bright red plants a natural for the holidays. The red and green theme also matches the old-time tradition of decorating green Christmas trees with red apples.

Currently, more than 34 million poinsettias are sold in the United States each year, totaling nearly $150 million. Commercial production of uniformly branched plants blooming shortly after Thanksgiving requires carefully controlled greenhouse conditions following a precise calendar schedule.

We're most familiar with red poinsettias, but where did the other colors come from? Colors found in their native habitat besides red include white, cream and lighter shades of red, including salmon. This natural gene pool allowed plant breeders to cross pollinate colors, creating pink, speckled, burgundy-red, orange and similar tones.

A few years ago, I was taken aback while shopping for poinsettias when I encountered blue, lavender, purple, turquoise and even lime green. Some were sparkly, which could easily be accomplished with glitter and glue. Had new poinsettia color genes been discovered? Some plants don't contain genetic makeup for certain colors. For example, you won't find a blue marigold.

To satisfy my curiosity, I scrutinized the plants and discovered the answer. As revealed by peeking at the undersides, the flower bracts were white and their top surfaces had been painted with purple, blue, lavender or turquoise.

I learned that spray-dying had side-stepped plant breeding, and colors are applied using vegetable dyes in an alcohol base. Countless color combinations are possible, sprayed onto white or red poinsettias. Dyed poinsettias have been sold regionally for several years.

How do people feel about the newer poinsettia colors? My Facebook survey revealed 70 percent of responders prefer traditional colors of red and occasionally white, with strong emotions against the newer colors.

The most common comment from the 'no' group was the fondness for traditional colors, with descriptive opinions that included "new colors are ugly," "look fake," "garish," "gaudy," "better suited for Easter," "poinsettias are RED," "looks like unicorn excrement," "Las Vegas casino lobby-esque," and "might as well buy plastic ones."

The 30 percent who like the newer colors commented "the colors are less boring," "they're beautiful and vibrant and lend themselves to decorating," "awesome - our tree lights are multi-colored, so why not poinsettias?" as well as, "Surprise your favorite girl with a 'Frozen' themed poinsettia!" and "love them - poinsettias for a Disney princess!"

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

He also blogs at