CLEMSON — Visitors to Greenville’s Westin-Poinsett Hotel this holiday season will have the opportunity to take a walk through horticultural history that is linked to the hotel’s namesake thanks to 10 Clemson University horticulture students.

A spectacular selection of poinsettia varieties grown by the students at the campus greenhouses, ranging from ‘”Oakleaf” from 1923 through new introductions like “Orange Spice,” with its bright Clemson-orange flowers, will be on display during the month of December.

Student cares for poinsettia

Jarred Gent, a junior studying horticulture, trims one of the poinsettias that will be part of a holiday exhibition at the Westin-Poinsett Hotel in Greenville. (Photo by Ken Scar)
Image Credit: Ken Scar

“In 1828, South Carolina native Joel Poinsett sent a gangly Mexican shrub to the United States. Today the plant is an iconic symbol of the holiday season,” said Jim Faust, associate professor of horticulture at Clemson. “Visitors will see this transformation unfold in our exhibit of 24 heirloom and modern poinsettia varieties.”

Three breeding advancements in particular transformed the poinsettia into the commercial success it is today:

The first improvement was leaf retention. Traditionally, the colorful bracts stayed on the poinsettia, but all of the leaves fell off after just two days in the home environment. A variety called “Paul Mikkelsen,” introduced in 1960s, was the first that held its leaves.

Students stand in room full of  poinsettias

A group of Clemson horticulture students stand in one of two greenhouses full of poinsettias that they are growing for a display that will be featured at the Westin-Poinsett Hotel in Greenville this holiday season. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Second, poinsettias are not naturally free-branching. That is, they tend to have just one or two shoots per plant. In the 1970s, the first free-branching variety was introduced. “Annette Hegg” produced five or more flowering shoots from just one plant. The cause of this free-branching characteristic remained a mystery until 1996, when scientists discovered a bacteria-like organism had serendipitously infected the poinsettia. All modern varieties continue to be infected by this organism.

The third important improvement is compactness. In the wilds of Mexico, poinsettias reach the height of 12 feet. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the new varieties were increasingly compact. “Freedom Red,” introduced in 1990s, was the first variety that was easily grown to one foot tall.

The display will open the first week of December and run through the holidays.