What is the poinsettia?

Every Xmas in Australia, a red plant appears, which tells you the year is in its last month.

There are a number of countdown products to Xmas, and Australia is in quite the wrong season, as the people in the northern hemisphere understand it. As the northerners are generally the people who have the marketing of the holiday down, Australia tends to try and cover both winter and summer approaches.

Therefore, snow scenes are still created as window displays, unemployed actors sweat it out in hot red suits with thick white fur trim, while a hundred hot kids queue up for a photo, and Xmas trees get decorated with white lights designed to look like icicles.

The things that are special to Australia are the mangoes, which come into season late Novenber – early December and the cherries. Australian shops long ago decided that the cherry is the ultimate Xmas food and should be on everyone’s table along with something called a prawn ring – for which I give thanks that I am vegetarian every year.

Although it is known as a Xmas plant elsewhere, I am pretty sure it was in Australia that I became aware of the Poinsettia plant being associated with the festive season. During December, great crops of them suddenly spring up in supermarkets, with their gorgeous red leaves as the must-have living Xmas decoration for your home.

I guess because I thought of it as seasonal, I always assumed it was a short-lived plant. To be honest, most plants are pretty short-lived when in my care anyway. I am not the most green-fingered of people. I am sure I never used to have this problem. I can remember a number of house plants around my flat when I was single, but recently anything and everything that I have tried to grow – with the exception of a ficus, because ficus trees are notoriously indestructible, has died a relatively swift and emphatic death. I search for plants described as ‘hardy’ and ones that claim not to need much watering  or care but to no avail: something always seems to go wrong.

This was why I was surprised when my mother asked me to look after her curry plant when my parents went on holiday last year. It was not even a proper plant, it was a cutting that her podiatrist had given her, which she had stuck in a pot. It was not doing well and when she presented it to me, it was less of a plant, more of a twig with six leaves. I have seen enough dying plants to know this one was not going to make it, but agreed to see it through its last days.

I did try. I built it its own personal greenhouse by wrapping cling film around its tiny fragile leaves, which hung like dry nails off dying fingers. The gentle breeze that swept across my backyard threatened to blow them off and I moved the plant against the wall out of harm’s way and watered it carefully.

Within three days it was dead. Just a thin, dead stick stuck in some potting mix.

So, by way of an apology, I bought a brand new, healthy curry plant for my mum for Xmas (from the dogs, which kind of implied they had killed the previous one not me). To find it, I went to a local nursery and while there, spotted Poinsettia for sale.

‘Ah!’ I exclaimed, ‘How much for the temporary Xmas plants?’

You could tell the man behind the counter had a way with plants. He had hair in a ponytail and a beard. His clothes were made from woven natural cottons (probably recycled) and he had those beady things on thin strips of leather around his wrists. He looked surprised at my question.

‘You mean the poinsettia?’ He asked, ‘They are not temporary.’

‘Oh?’ I said, ‘You mean they are not supposed to die around the same time the decorations come down?’

‘No’ he confirmed.

‘Right,’ I agreed, ‘That is what I thought too. It is just that I have a …friend who has never managed to keep one past January.’ At this I gave what I hoped was an incredulous laugh, ‘Can you believe it!’

‘It will be fine, ‘ he assured me, ‘Just make sure you – or your friend – does not water it direct on the leaves or the colour will spoil.’

I paid for the curry plant and the poinsettia and left.

I have not checked recently with my mum on the curry plant, but I am looking at my poinsettia as I speak. True, it is not as smart as it looked when I bought it. The leaves have turned from a deep red to a pinker shade and some of them are turning back to green, but it is still alive and I can just see at the top that a few new tiny buds are appearing with the promise of new leaves to be unfurled.

Of course I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it is February – nearly March, so it is just possible that I will have a poinsettia next Xmas too – and it will be the same one that is sitting in front of me as I write. I might just call it Gloria, not after the music of  Handel so often played at Xmas, but for Gloria Gaynor, because she survived too.


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