31 December 2012

Winter Roses Bloom in Pasadena

As I sit by the front window looking at the dismally brown lawn half covered in melting snow with a sky like dirty wool, people are starting to claim their spots on the route of the 124th annual Tournament of Roses Parade in sunny Pasadena, California. They're probably also sunbathing. In a place like So Cal, with its seemingly perpetual Mediterranean summer, I always knew autumn had arrived when the scaffolding for the bleachers started going up along Orange Grove Avenue. And for those of us in the gardening world the saying, "After the parade and before the football game" was a reference to the perfect time to prune roses in the LA area.

1937 Rose Parade pictorial
The Rose Parade, as locals call it, officially began, well, 124 years ago by members of the exclusive Valley Hunt Club, who were all wealthy east coast transplants seeking to escape the snowy eastern winters. In the spirit of the English tradition of the hunt, members would stage an annual event on New Year's Day, though in So Cal hunting jackrabbits or coyotes would have been more common than hunting foxes. The chase ended with sports and games at a nearby park. When land values crashed in the 1880's, Club founder Professor Charles F. Holder decided to showcase the region's mild climate by hosting a festival of flowers on New Year's Day, declaring, "In New York, people are buried in the snow. Here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear. Let's hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise."

Prof. Charles F. Holder in his study c.1910 (

Club members embraced the idea and decorated their carriages and horses with flowers from their own gardens. The parade, like the former hunt, was followed by athletic games and contests at which point Professor Holder named it the Tournament of Roses. By 1895 it had grown to become such an event that the Tournament of Roses Association was formed to take over operations. Over the next few years eastern US newspapers took notice and people began to travel from the opposite coast to see the spectacle, smell the roses, feel the sunshine and enjoy a break from the frigid winter temperatures back home. In 1901 the first football game associated with the Rose Parade was played and in 1923 a new stadium was built in the Arroyo of Pasadena called the Rose Bowl, which has hosted the post-parade football game ever since.

The 1893 Tournament of Roses Parade (

Pasadena's Rose Bowl stadium a few days before New Year's 2007

After the death of Mrs. William Wrigley Jr. (he of Wrigley gum manufacture) in 1952, the family mansion, Wrigley House, on Orange Grove Ave. (referred to as Mansion Mile by locals) was donated under the condition that it would serve as the permanent home of the Tournament of Roses Association. The house was renamed Tournament House and is still the organization's headquarters.

Fast forward to the present when the Parade has become a national spectacle. Floats are elaborate feats of engineering combining mechanical science with decorative artistry sponsored by private organizations and municipalities. High school marching bands compete for the privilege to march the 5.5 miles route and come from all over the country, along with military and bagpipe bands. Rabid fans of the two collegiate football teams playing in the Rose Bowl descend in droves to cheer on their home team and school colors add to the array of floral hues along the parade route. An energetic rose breeder has even tried to come up with a way of producing roses bearing the school colors of the teams competing in the Rose Bowl.

Colored roses on display before the 2011 Rose Parade

The floats are entered into categories and compete for 24 awards determined by only three judges, often celebrities and media personalities though horticultural experts are sometimes invited. Rules state the exterior of the float must be entirely covered in natural material: no artificial materials or materials that have been artificially colored are allowed. Leaves, flowers, petals, bark, seeds, fruits and roots, both fresh and dried, are used ingeniously to achieve the incredible effects on the floats today, all painstakingly applied by volunteers who work crazy hours to finish the floats by January 1. Most of the roses used in the displays are imported from South America, and growers of other plants and flowers that usually don't bloom even in the warm So Cal winter provide the bulk of the floats' floral decorations. Whole blooms are used fresh in water picks while some are chopped, dried, or ground into powder and applied inch by inch until the float is a botanically clad masterpiece.

Volunteers putting the final touches on Rose Parade floats in one of the parade "barns", 2011

Come New Year's morning, the floats, bands, classic cars, horse drawn carriages, equestrians, and official Tournament pooper scoopers are lined up along the parade route. There is an urban legend surrounding the Parade that says the Parade will never take place on a Sunday and, for that reason, God will never allow it to rain on a Parade. In fact, it has rained in Pasadena just nine times on New Year's Day since the Parade started but participants and viewers alike braved the unusual wet weather each time.

At the end of the parade route in Sierra Madre, the floats are parked so folks can get an up close and personal look at them. I lived barely a mile from the viewing area and enjoyed getting to see how so many natural materials were used to create the colors and textures on the floats.

A poster board displaying a sample of the materials used and what effects they achieve (2007)

White roses and carnations substitute for snow under this brown bear's paws (2007)

Dehydrated lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit slices make up the scales on this bejeweled fish (2007)

Dazzling dragons attack the castle (2007). The turret roofs are covered in Ginkgo leaves and coffee grounds stand in as mortar between the stones

Dried beans, peas, and other seeds create the color and texture on these reptiles (2007)
Things have certainly come a long way since this first float prize winner in 1893 (

This year the forecast for New Year's Day in Pasadena is sunshine and 62 degrees; perfect Parade weather! It's also the first year in recollection that I haven't been in CA for the holidays and I'm rather enjoying the novelty of a White Christmas and having to bundle up before I go outside. Back here in the snowy south, I'll be watching the parade on the telly in front of the fire and looking for a friend who works at the parade every year. This year, his job is to walk along with one of the marching bands. Hope he'll be wearing some sturdy shoes and sunblock!

In the States, the Parade is shown live on most major networks and cable channels, some of which put it on a continuous loop for the rest of the day in case you're, shall we say, disinclined to get up early. For those of you abroad who might like to watch, there will be a live Internet stream available here.

For parade start time, more information and more awesome historical photos, see the Tournament Association's website. Meanwhile, I'll be looking through garden catalogs and dreaming of spring...

Happy New Year!!!

12 December 2012

Happy Poinsettia Day!

Question: What do a 14th century king, an 18th century nurseryman, a 19th century politician and a 20th century Southern California ranch have in common?

Answer: the Poinsettia

Red Euphorbia pulcherrima with its white flowered cousin, Euphorbia fulgens
A showy member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), characterized by a milky sap in its veins, the Poinsettia is currently the most popular potted plant sold in the US and Canada. The top producer of this festive flora is a ranch in California and very apropos that is, too. Without the traditional white Christmas images of snow-clad conifers and frosty snowmen, Cali had to have something for the seasons. With their bright red bracts, now hybridized to produce shades of white, pink, even orange, the Poinsettia is a natural choice for a warm climate Christmas decoration where the plants can enjoy the holiday season wearing sunglasses and sipping iced tea outside on the patio. Back east, they're strictly indoor plants. It was So Cal grower Paul Ecke Jr. who discovered a way to make the straggly Poinsettia seedlings branch resulting in fuller plants and a flourishing holiday market. It is now one of the most ubiquitous holiday decorations at Christmas time.

Native to the deciduous tropical forests of Mexico, the Poinsettia had been used ceremonially and medicinally for centuries by the Aztecs who called it Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, for residue, and xochitl, for flower). Montezuma, last king of the Aztecs, had the plants imported to ornament his mountain palace. Today in Mexico the plant is called La Flor de la Nochebuena meaning Flower of the Holy Night because of its association with Christmas. In a South American legend echoing the Little Drummer Boy, a poor girl is saddened when she has no money to buy Baby Jesus a gift. An angel appears and instructs her to gather the weeds growing wild nearby. As her tears fell on the leaves, they turned into brilliant scarlet blooms.

The plant was "discovered" in the early 19th century by Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), an American statesman, botanist, and physician. He was appointed the first Minister to Mexico in 1825. During his time there he visited the area around Taxco del Alarcon south of Mexico City, an area settled by 17th century Franciscan missionaries. It was then that the plant began to be used in Christian ceremonies and became associated with Christmas. Poinsett was captured by the fiery bracts of the Christmas flower and sent cuttings back to the US where it was propagated and sold, gaining, in 1833, the official botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning 'most beautiful'. In 1837 it was renamed to honor Poinsett's achievements in botany and politics but you know how those pesky nomenclaturists are - the name reverted back to the original Euphorbia pulcherrima but the world now knows it as Poinsettia.

Poinsett wasn't just all about politics and plants. As a physician, he also took a great interest in the sciences and was a founding member of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful, which gave birth to the Smithsonian Institute (I rather like the original name and would love to know what they then considered 'useful').

So we now know that our 14th century king was the king of the Aztecs and we're well acquainted with Poinsett and the California grower responsible for bringing the Poinsettia to the retail world, but what about the 18th century nurseryman? While researching this piece, I ran across a source that claimed John Bartram, the renown Philadelphia plant hunter and botanist, was the first in the US to sell the Poinsettia under that name. I'm not sure how this is possible since Poinsett sent his cuttings from Mexico to his estate in Charleston half a century after Bartram died. Hmmm...

Bold red bracts of Euphorbia pulcherrima with the delicate white of Euphorbia 'Diamond Heights'
Just goes to show, it pays to cross reference (and know your plant history!).

As if having a plant named for you isn't enough, there is now a day dedicated to the plant! A Resolution passed in the House of Representatives in 2002 to honor Mr. Ecke's contribution to the American economy and to mark the anniversary of Mr. Poinsett's death declared December 12 Poinsettia Day. Today, as you're doing your holiday shopping, why not pick up a Poinsettia and decorate your home with a bit of festive holiday botanical history? And if you live in the southwest, you can plant it in your garden where it can be enjoyed year round (sorry, Easties, back to the hothouse for you!).

A variety of holiday Poinsettias augmented by the silvery foliage of Begonia, rosemary, and English ivy.
A note about toxicity: contrary to popular belief, the Poinsettia is not deadly to humans. The milky sap may cause an allergic skin reaction and you sure don't want to get it in your eyes. Consuming any part of the plant will probably make you ill but it won't kill you. Nevertheless, always keep these and any houseplants away from infants and always teach children to never put houseplants in their mouths.