For Poinsettia Growers, It's Showtime

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
December 24, 2002
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.

Poinsettia Production

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.

For cost-effectiveness, commercial poinsettia growers raise their plants from stock—typically two- to three-inch (five- to eight-centimeters) rooted plant cuttings—rather 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.

Consumer Appeal

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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