National Geographic News
Before any new variety of poinsettia reaches a garden center, its forebears may have spent four to five hours bouncing over the rutted back roads of Alachua County, Florida, in a van driven by Terril A. Nell.
Nell is a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Every year, he and his colleagues test 60 new poinsettia varieties to identify which ones will thrive outside a nursery. The road test determines whether a plant will bruise in transit.
For people outside the industry, such rigorous product-testing might sound over the top for a potted plant. But think again. Poinsettias are a big business. The selling season is short, intense, and, during a good year, lucrative.
Poinsettias are the top-selling potted flowering plant in the United States. In 2001, wholesale poinsettia sales tracked in 38 major U.S. states totaled more than U.S. $256 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During the six-week holiday season, more than 75 million poinsettias are sold, far outpacing chrysanthemums and orchids, its next closest competitors.
As a result, breeders and growers are under intense pressure to develop varieties that look spectacular, bloom at the right time, ship well, satisfy consumers, and survive outside nursery care.
"The breeding on all plants, including poinsettias, is moving at light speed," said Jason Riley, a marketing manager for Oglevee, Ltd., a geranium and poinsettia breeder based in Connelsville, Pennsylvania. "If you don't keep updating your varieties and making sure that you have the very best, you'll be left in the dust," he said.
Riley spoke from an annual open house for poinsettia growers held at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. The university is in a consortium with the Univesity of Florida and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, that leads national poinsettia trials and research on behalf of the poinsettia industry.
The event typically draws several hundred poinsettia growers, who evaluate varieties and plan purchases for the growing season.
Severe ice storms and power outages kept many growers away from this year's event. But despite the low turnout, Riley said he was pleased with his company's showing, particularly their newest varieties, the Winterfest series, which come in solid hues of red, white, pink, and a marbled pattern. "It's bred to color up later in December, and is timed to peak for last-minute poinsettia sales by growers," said Riley.
Poinsettias belong to the euphorbia family, a group of 3,000 plants distinguished by their milky white sap. The color comes not from poinsettia's flowers but from its modified leaves, called bracts.
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