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Annual poinsettia sale hosted by UF student organization is an experiential learning model for other universities

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Each December, the undergraduate environmental horticulture club in the University of Florida IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) hosts its highly-anticipated poinsettia sale.

This year, the 21st annual poinsettia sale will be Dec. 7 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Dec. 8 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fifield Hall greenhouses (behind 2550 Hull Road, Gainesville, FL, 32611). There will be more than 100 new poinsettia varieties on sale and pre-orders are available.

Typically, proceeds from the sale range from $60,000 to $70,000. These funds help to pay for materials, supplies, greenhouse upkeep, a paid internship of the head student grower, national horticulture competitions, in-state trips visiting greenhouses and production facilities, and an international learning experience.

“We learned about transplanting, pinching or manipulating plant size, growth fertilizers, pest controls, why growers select certain plants to cultivate for sale and other up-to-date knowledge pertinent to the industry,” said Cristina Martinez, a former poinsettia sale participant and now a CALS environmental horticulture master’s student at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. “I like how the club uses proceeds [from the poinsettia sale] for a networking opportunity abroad.”

“It’s all them,” said Brian Pearson, the co-club adviser and an assistant professor at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka. “That’s why it’s even more impressive.”

Pearson said the club draws in 50 to 70 students from a variety of majors both inside and outside of CALS. Students have even changed their majors to study horticulture after participating in the poinsettia sale, he said.

Following Pearson’s presentation about the innovative club sale and generation of student involvement and funding at the American Society of Horticulture Science conference in 2015, other universities have sought his advice on how to start similar programs at their home institutions. In 2016, the University of Hawaii at Manoa had its first poinsettia sale with 200 plants. These faculty and students plan to double the number of poinsettias this year.

Jim Barrett, UF/IFAS environmental horticulture emeritus professor, initiated the club’s poinsettia sale program as club adviser in 1998. He conducted national poinsettia cultivar trials for breeders across the U.S., and UF/IFAS has continued to host these trials for more than 20 years. Barrett invited students in his introductory nursery management course to grow poinsettias alongside his trials.

“Breeders send us their new varieties for us to evaluate their performance under local Florida conditions,” said Paul Fisher, a poinsettia specialist and professor in the UF/IFAS environmental horticulture department. “Breeders from all over the world are especially interested in performance of poinsettias under light and heat.”

Poinsettias will flower when the days are short and the nights are long. A warm fall, such as the temperature this year, can delay the poinsettias from turning color by a few weeks. Fisher said the UF/IFAS poinsettia researchers play a key part in collecting data and evaluating varieties for the industry, including simulations of how a poinsettia variety performs in a typical home environment.

“We also do different kinds of trials to grow these plants,” Fisher said. “For example, this year, one of the trials we’ve done is on the potting mix. Traditionally, peat and pearlite are used by growers. We’ve tested peat and wood fiber as a sustainable and renewable source [for the potting mix]. We are seeing that the poinsettias grow just as well with this more sustainable mix.”

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The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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