Lexington greenhouse starts popular Christmas poinsettias in July

Judy Pemberton looked upon the rows of poinsettias that are grown to maturity at Pemberton's Greenhouses in Lexington, just in time for the holidays.
Judy Pemberton looked upon the rows of poinsettias that are grown to maturity at Pemberton's Greenhouses in Lexington, just in time for the holidays. Herald-Leader

For Judy Pemberton, Christmas truly does begin in July.

That's when 12,000 tiny poinsettia plants arrive to be planted at Pemberton's Greenhouses in Lexington.

To get in the spirit, Pemberton just cranks up the Christmas music.

But preparing for the holidays this year in 120-degree greenhouses, sweating under a plastic roof, made some people a little irritable.

"I was playing Let It Snow, and they turned on me," she said, smiling.

You would think the Pembertons, as sixth-generation growers, would be used to it by now.

The family has been in the nursery business, formerly called W.P. Pemberton and Sons, since 1871 and at its present location just off Georgetown Road since 1945.

They used to propagate all the poinsettias from cuttings off "mother plants" from growers like Paul Ecke, the California nurseryman who in the 1920s made a Mexican wild plant into an emblem of the holiday season.

But times change, Pemberton said

Now, daughters Ashley Pemberton Herndon and Janna Pemberton Schmidt, son Colin Pemberton and Schmidt's husband, Jeff, buy rooted stock that is shipped in July. Today's plants all come by their colors naturally although they still need pampering to get there.

"They do have to have pure darkness at night to turn," Janna Pemberton Schmidt said of the tedious process that causes the plants' upper bracts — they're not petals — to change color. That means no street lights, no car lights, no nothing.

"The bigger challenge is color," she said of predicting trends. "It's always changing, ... whatever is in Southern Living."

Burgundy is coming on big, as is a mottled red and white.

This year seems to be more of a "red" year, Schmidt said. Last year, they couldn't keep enough white.

Newer varieties such as the speckled "Jingle Bell" are fading out, she said, because the spots are caused by a virus that can't be reliably propagated into new plants.

"It doesn't 'jingle' any more," Schmidt said.

And some popular ones, including salmon and a variegated leaf variety, have been discontinued as growers consolidate. Most of the poinsettia production in the world is now controlled by a German conglomerate called Syngenta; the days of niche colors are dwindling.

Many churches and homes stick with the same color year after year to decorate, so they have to know they can get what they need, whether it's tall plants to be seen from the back of the sanctuary or diminutive ones for party centerpieces.

A lot of Pemberton's poinsettias are sold through youth, school and church groups as fund-raisers.

"We're the largest independent grower," Schmidt said. If you've bought a poinsettia from Boy Scouts or a high school band in Lexington, chances are it came from Pemberton's.

But they also sell directly to walk-in customers; some like to come in and take photos amid the beds of plants.

"We do run out. Then we make adjustments the next year," Schmidt said.

Most of the plants will peak a little later, closer to the holidays. Demand kicks into high gear just after Thanksgiving. By mid-December, the sea of color starts to look more like scattered islands.

If the poinsettias run out, there are plenty of other options.

"We've got Christmas cactus, amaryllis, paperwhites, ..." Schmidt said.

If that doesn't seem seasonal enough, there is a whole room full of ivy, planted last summer. As in The Holly and the Ivy.

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