Nothing says Christmas quite like the green leaves and bright red bracts of poinsettias. And East Texas is among the nation's largest producers of these traditional holiday buds.

"We just started last week, but this will probably be a good year," said Don Darby, president of Darby Greenhouses and Farms Inc. in New Summerfield, near Jacksonville. "This has just been a [rough] week. I already have the heebie-jeebies trying to figure out how to get it all done."

He said his facilities are some of the largest in East Texas, with 350,000 square feet devoted to growing poinsettias for the holiday season.

"I have two wholesalers, and I send full truckloads to them," Darby said. "We do have independent accounts, like independent garden centers and independent landscape designers, but I'd say 95 percent of our business is wholesale. We grow in several different sizes. For the bigger pots, earlier cuttings have to come in, mostly from Central America, Africa, or Mexico, in mid-June. We have to root them, because they're just cuttings. The plants normally like company, because of the humidity. Then, in October, we give them their final spacing. We operate almost year round with different plants, but poinsettias are a big part, and pretty much use all of our space."

For all the time and effort that goes into growing a successful poinsettia crop, he said they sell out in the space of a few weeks.

"We usually start selling in the second week of November, and finish shipping in the third week of December, so it's about a six week process," said Kenny Knabel, manager of house sales for Color Spot Nurseries in Troup. "We sell about 70 or 75 percent this week and in the first week of December because of Christmas."

He said that this location of the Color Spot Nurseries chain does the cuttings for all of their centers in the Southwest and the West Coast.

"It's very hectic, and very fast paced," he said. "It gets very nerve-racking. The timeframe is so critical, and so short. It gets very hectic, and very tedious. We have two separate divisions: The shipping and wholesale, and the independent moms-and-pops, the fundraisers for churches and schools and things like that."

Poinsettias are not native to Texas. The Aztecs first cultivated the flowers in Central America, using them for dyes and medicines. Once they began to be exported, they spread and grew well in South America, Western Africa, and Turkey, as well as the United States. Poinsettias get their English name from Joel Robert Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who brought them back in 1825. They did not catch on, however, until the 1950's, when Los Angeles florist Paul Ecke, Jr. began sending poinsettias to every major television station for them to display during the holiday season. He even went on The Tonight Show and Bob Hope's Christmas specials to promote his plants. They caught on quickly after that, and have now become almost synonymous with holiday decorating.

Poinsettias are available individually at most garden centers.

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