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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.