The Christmas plant - not at all predictable during the festive season.


Tis the season not to bother

There are many things that are predictable in this world: The Sound of Music appearing on TV at Christmas, Air Asia flights being late all year, getting wet at Songkran whether you want to join in or not, and totally gratuitous digs at citizens of South Canadia in the gardening column of the Phuket Gazette. The list goes on. And on.

Christmas has its own predictability in the West. You can guarantee that the number of pointless Christmas cards you send out will be pretty much in line with the number you receive every year; many from people you hardly know. Probably just as many from distant relatives you’d rather not meet up with ever again. The easy way out is to take my line of thinking on this one – just don’t bother.

And what is it with the obsession with turkey that the Brits seem to have? It’s not an especially aroi meat in the first place – a drier, tougher version of chicken, I suppose. So why do we insist on cooking a bird the size of Belgium every Christmas day?

We end up eating the remains of the thing for the next week. Turkey casseroles, turkey soup, turkey salad and turkey sandwiches. Post-Christmas turkey binges are just one of life’s certain facts in the UK. All this not particularly pleasant meat from one of the ugliest birds on the planet. I think I’ll just stick to tom yam kung this year, as I usually do.

TV programming takes a nosedive during the Christmas season, too (sorry – I just can’t bring myself to use that awful American “holidays” thing). They seem to take the very worst TV programs that have regularly appeared all year, chuck a bit of holly in the background and give everyone a Santa hat, and call it the “Christmas edition”. Excruciating stuff.

The Christmas season seems to get longer every year there. There are shops in the UK that are breaking out the Christmas decorations at the beginning of October – nearly three months ahead of the day itself. Why not just leave them up all year, and have a 365-day Christmas, from Boxing Day to Christmas Day, every year? Just a thought.

Christmas in Thailand is more than a little strange to us Westerners, but at least doesn’t go on for too long. Hearing Santa Claus is Coming to Town blaring out of the speakers at Big C and Tesco Lotus isn’t what I would expect, but is as predictable as the baubles hanging from the lights and the Christmas tree in the lobby. All of this covered in fake snow in a country where snow hasn’t fallen for several million years and Christmas isn’t even a holiday.

I suppose I should be predictable myself, and get onto something vaguely Christmassy. Every year at around this time, one plant in particular makes a regular appearance en masse at the various garden centers around Phuket – the poinsettia.

As far as the plant world is concerned, it’s about the closest we can get to Christmas in this region of the planet. It’s also known as the Christmas plant, or completely predictably, “kissemass” in Thai. In many other areas, this is one of the most popular plants in many homes over the Christmas holiday season.

For those who care, it got its name after it was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett. He took cuttings from a shrub he found growing next to a road in the wilds of southern Mexico and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.

The poinsettia’s official species name, pulcherrima, means “most beautiful”. It actually really is, with its huge display of rich foliage. It probably became known as the Christmas plant purely because of its coloring – vivid red and green – being long associated with the Christmas season.

The showy, colored part of poinsettias that most people think are the flowers (bright scarlet) are actually colored bracts, or modified leaves. The actual flowers or cyathia of the poinsettia are in the center of the colorful bracts, and in reality are a little disappointing. They’re tiny.

Any gardening center in Phuket will happily part with a 40-centimeter-high example of the Christmas plant for around 150 baht. Unlike most floral purchases in Thailand, it’s one of those plants that needs little translation – just ask for “kissemas” and you’ll get what you’re after. There is certainly no shortage of “kissemas” vendors at present.

To check the poinsettia’s maturity examine the true flowers, which are located at the base of the colored bracts. If the flowers are green- or red-tipped and fresh looking, the bloom will last longer than if yellow pollen is covering the flowers. A fresh poinsettia is one on which little or no yellow pollen is showing on the flower clusters in the center of the bracts.

Poinsettias prefer moderately moist soil, so when the soil begins to feel dry to the touch, add enough water so the excess drips out the drain holes if they’re in pots, but never allow the plant to sit in water. Ideally, they should be fed every couple of weeks with a fertilizer when the plant is growing. Do this and they’ll thank you forever – even after Christmas.

Poinsettias are perennials, so it is theoretically possible to keep them growing from year to year, and doing their thing at Christmas. In theory (I’ve never tried this here myself), to get them to produce their flower bracts again next December, they must be kept in a cool spot and in total darkness for 14 hours per day beginning in mid-September.

Any light, even turning on a light bulb for a few seconds will delay the bloom. I have to say that this advice is designed for more temperate climates, so I’m not honestly sure that it would work here. “A cool spot”? Yeah, right.

One word of caution with the Christmas plant. Poinsettia sap may irritate your skin, so perhaps rubber gloves would be a good idea whenever you are doing any pruning, pinching or cutting of these plants.

Christmas in Phuket? It may not be celebrated here in the traditional sense, but at least there are one or two ways we can be reminded of the festive season here. And we don’t even need to put up with Julie Andrews wailing about lonely goat herds or endure turkey sandwiches for weeks to come.

Merry Christmas. I’ll see you at the beach.



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