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UF horticulturist says there’s a poinsettia to suit everyone

Cindy Spence

Jim Barrett (352) 392-1831

GAINESVILLE—When poinsettias arrived on the U.S. Christmas scene as stage decor for holiday television specials in the 1950s and ’60s, there was red and only red.

Now, four decades later, there are about 100 varieties of poinsettias and almost as many colors and variations, says University of Florida horticulturist Jim Barrett.

Until recently, red poinsettias accounted for 90 percent of sales in Florida. But pinks, mauves, whites and variegated types are gaining ground, and now red’s share of the market has dropped to 75 percent of poinsettia sales.

This year poinsettia breeders have really been busy, even introducing a poinsettia called Winter Rose that has curled bracts that resemble roses. All told, there are almost three dozen more varieties than last year.

“It’s incredible,” Barrett said. “We have 34 we are evaluating this year that are brand new that people have not seen before.

“Breeders are introducing new varieties so quickly that it is impossible for growers to evaluate them and determine which are best for the general public.”

That’s where UF poinsettia specialists in Gainesville and at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Bradenton enter the picture. The specialists annually evaluate new releases to determine how the plants will fare in Florida’s climate.

With about half of the poinsettias available developed in just the last four years, the need for evaluation has skyrocketed, Barrett said. In fact, UF has joined with Purdue University and North Carolina State University to perform uniform poinsettia trials in three different U.S. climates.

“The large number of new poinsettia cultivars and the importance of the poinsettia to the floriculture industry provides a unique opportunity and the need for such a trial,” said Barrett, a researcher in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The evaluations by UF poinsettia specialists are important because not all varieties will fare well once at home with a consumer. On the surface, the plants are easy to evaluate: Are the colors deep and true, and is the foliage full? But other considerations come into play: Are the branches strong, and will the foliage resist bruising during shipping?

“In the poinsettia trials, we let growers know which newcomers to look at more closely,” Barrett said. “Sometimes, a variety that’s easy for the grower to grow won’t perform well after being shipped and then taken home from a store.”

The varieties developed since 1990 are a better buy and will hold up better in a consumer’s home, Barrett said. The leaves will stay on, and the bracts will stay bright through the holiday period.

Breeders can’t seem to resist developing new colors and many consumers, trying to color-coordinate with an ivory sofa or peach-toned wallpaper, like them, too.

“Red is an important color, since poinsettias are a Christmas plant,” said Barrett. “But the new colors and variations add quite a bit of diversity to what’s available for the general public.

“There are more options than have been traditionally available: different shades of reds, variegated leaves, different pinks, more decorator-type colors,” Barrett said. “Consumer surveys tell us that there is a percentage that don’t like plain, red poinsettias.”

And if you think retailers, tree farmers and toymakers like Christmas, consider the joy with which poinsettia growers regard the holiday. In a six-week span every year, poinsettias do $250 million in business.

Not only are poinsettias the most popular Christmas plant, they are the top-selling flowering potted plant nationally, with 70 million sold each year. Impressive for a plant whose market window extends only from mid-November through December, Barrett says.

“The marketing of poinsettias has been so successful that it’s a real success story in the flower industry,” Barrett said.

Consumers who would like to see the latest in poinsettias can attend an open house at UF Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The poinsettia greenhouse is behind Fifield Hall off Hull Road.