For cost-effectiveness, commercial poinsettia growers raise their plants from stocktypically two- to three-inch (five- to eight-centimeters) rooted plant cuttingsrather than seed.
There are just five major breeders that supply poinsettia stock in the world today. Three are based in Europe. Two are based in the United States. Of those, more than two-thirds of all poinsettias sold worldwide originate from a single source: the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California.
Oglevee, the second-largest U.S. breeder, sells about 4 million cuttings annually. In July and August, the breeder harvests cuttings from thousands of stock plants maintained by Floraplant, a Mexican horticultural subcontractor, in 30 acres of greenhouses near Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Cuttings are immediately shipped to Oglevee greenhouses in Georgia and Pennsylvania, where, within 72 hours of harvesting, workers must place them in pots to root.
Cuttings take about a month to root. They are then shipped to greenhouses throughout the U.S. and overseas. Labor-intensive work doesn't stop at the greenhouse. Growers must pinch off the plants at specific times to promote the branching consumers find attractive.
Because wild poinsettias can grow up to 10 to 12 feet (three to four meters), growers manipulate greenhouse lighting and temperature or apply chemical growth regulators to potted poinsettias to stunt their growth.
Most poinsettia varieties retain peak coloration for only two weeks, so many breeders and growers produce a range of early-, middle-, and late-blooming varieties to span the selling season.
The commercial market now includes 120 to 130 poinsettia varieties, according to Nell.
Over time, consumer appeal has been brought to bear on the poinsettia market, Nell said. "I think the breeders are smart enough to know that consumers want something better and better," said Nell. "It's kind of like going out and buying a new pair of tennis shoes. I want the newest look."
One such customer is Karen Brendle, a floral design instructor at the Center for the Arts and Technology, a vocational school for grades 9 through 12 in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. For the past 20 years, students in the school's horticulture program have raised poinsettias each fall to sell in December. This year, Brendle's 47 students are each growing 20 to 25 poinsettia plants of the well-known Freedom variety in hues of red, white, pink, and a marbled creamy red.
But change may be afoot for next year. Last month, while attending a state poinsettia trial at Delaware Valley College, Brendle said she was quite taken with the dark red and bright green leaves of a variety called Prestige among the scores of new varieties on display. "When you really start looking at that many poinsettias, you can really tell the difference in the shape of the flower."
Regardless of what variety her students grow next year, Brendle said the exercise is always beneficial. "We tell the students, if you can grow poinsettias, you can grow anything," said Brendle.
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