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Columbia's Poinsettia Tree: The Inside Story

The controversy over the Mall in Columbia's decision to end the decades-long tradition of staging a Poinsettia Tree each Christmas season has ended reasonably happily.

Now, there's a neat postscript in the form of a letter from the daughter of the man who created the tree that became a symbol of a young, planned community in Howard County. Thanks to Ellen Brown Nathan for passing along her story:

I am the daughter of the man who created the poinsettia tree for Columbia Mall and for as many as 20 other Rouse Company malls in any one holiday season. The tree meant a great deal to my dad and is still important to my family.

From about 1961 until his death in 1990, my father Leroy J. Brown was the chief horticulturist for the Rouse Company. He created the Poinsettia Tree, the spring garden, and came in second in the world flower exposition in Amsterdam--second to Holland which voted itself first!

In 1964, when dad was first inspired to construct the tree, he was greeted with skepticism from co-workers, mall managers, and nurseryman alike. The tree required the construction of a steel superstructure, an independent watering system for each plant, and poinsettias grown to specific proportions and peaking on a specific day.

My mother rearranged out traditional family Thanksgiving plans, and we all went to the Mall on Thanksgiving afternoon. The tree had to be completed for the Mall opening on Friday morning. The crew worked long into the night, constructing the superstructure and mounting the plants. Dad placed each plant so that it fit into the proper shape and checked each watering lead himself. I remember scrambling up the superstructure to assist with the plants.

Well after midnight, we all were amazed at this beautiful creation! Mr. Jim Rouse ordered professional photographs of the tree, which became front page news for the young city and surrounding areas--and a part of Columbia Mall's history and tradition.

For 20 years following, my dad made his annual "Poinsettia Run" in which trees were installed in as many as 20 malls throughout the United States. Many people have tried to duplicate the original, but they were never successful. No other trees lasted as long or resembled a Christmas tree in quite the same fashion as my dad's--all due to his secret watering system and specifications for the height of the poinsettias and the width of its brachs.

Thank you sincerely for writing this story and to the citizens of Columbia, MD, who fought to retain the Tree. While they regard it as part of their tradition, it certainly is part of mine and a wonderful reminder of dad's creativity and skill. I am so pleased that the Tree will live on!

By Marc Fisher |  December 24, 2007; 7:25 AM ET
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I am a Columbia pioneer (October, 1967), and I can tell you that Ellen Brown Nathan is a little off on her facts, at least as far as the date the tree came into existence. Columbia did not open until June, 1967, and the Mall didn't open until August, 1971, ao it definitely did not make its appearance at Columbia Mall at Thanksgiving, 1964. In fact, I don't believe it was there for the first couple of Christmases that the Mall was open, although I do believe it was there by the mid-70's. Anyway, it was always the highlight of my trips to the Mall and I just couldn't believe it when it was gone this year. Quite frankly, the Mall decorations just sucked this year. Sorry, but I think this is just a preview of what we can expect from GGP. They just don't give a damn about Columbia; for them, it's all about money.

Posted by: Erin | December 26, 2007 12:44 PM

Re: the letter about the Pointsetia Tree in Columbia....

Perhaps time has fogged the Ms. Nathan's memory a tad...there was only a blueprint of a Columbia, MD in 1964. I know because my family moved there on July 26, 1969, and when they were building The Mall in 1970 all the teens and young adults couldn't wait to have somewhere new to hang out! There are very few traditions that bind whole communities together - the Pointsetia Tree is one. For GGP to not take that into account is both short-sighted and callous. Thank goodness there are still Columbians who remember Mr. Rouse and remember (and try to keep!) his vision for Columbia alive!

Posted by: Janet A. Brown | December 27, 2007 3:48 PM

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