All photos by Cassie Neiden
Although many options are offered, red poinsettias are still the most popular by far.

While your customers may be soaking up the last days of summer, you’re likely already planning for the holiday season. Many garden center retailers offer ornaments, holiday décor and gifts, getting a nice boost before the end of the year. Poinsettias are another staple of the holidays. Although other plants are often offered as an alternative, the most iconic plant there is for the yuletide is the red-hued, traditional Christmas poinsettia.

Origins of the popular plant

The poinsettia as the horticultural symbol of Christmas is believed to have come from an old Mexican legend: a poor young girl named Pepita and her cousin Pedro have no money for the Christmas Eve offering, so they pick weeds on their way to Mass and upon placing them on the church nativity scene, the plants turn into bright red poinsettias — a Christmas miracle. “Miracle of the Poinsettia” (Milagro de la Flor de Nochebuena) by Carmen Lopez-Platek, a bilingual children’s book, retells this Christmas legend.

The shape of the flower is also reminiscent of the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color is meant to symbolize the blood of Christ in some cultures as well.

The poinsettia was first brought to the United States in 1828 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While visiting Taxco del Alarcon in the southern part of the country, he became fascinated with the plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and sent some back to his plantation in South Carolina. From there, he began growing them and sending them to friends and botanical gardens all over the U.S. The Ecke family made the plant the staple it is today, and The Paul Ecke Ranch once grew more than 70 percent of all poinsettias sold in the U.S., according to a 2008 article in The Chicago Tribune.

New techniques

Amy Morris, head grower at N.G. Heimos Greenhouses in Millstadt, Ill., says that poinsettias are classic for retailers and consumers alike.

“They’re festive and put people in the Christmas mood,” she says.

Morris says that breeders have been working hard to create blooms with a bolder shade of red and stronger V-shaped petals in time for Black Friday sales. Poinsettias are obviously a holiday season staple, but that doesn’t mean they have to be stale or overdone.

Retailers can present poinsettias in festive holiday pots instead of the traditional foil wrap to draw sales.

Adam Heimos, also of N.G. Heimos Greenhouses, says that the industry is always keeping things fresh. For this year, decorative, festive pots for the plant are very popular, as are new colors in poinsettia blooms.

“I’ve seen [varieties with] a dark crimson red, kind of like holly, and also shades that are more orange for Thanksgiving,” he says.

Growers have been experimenting with hues for quite some time, offering white and yellow versions of the plant, plus painted purple and blue bracts.

Morris says that a prominent trend for poinsettia growers within the past five years has been Reduced Temperature Finishing (RTF), also known as “cold-finishing.”

Experiment with displays in new ways. Blue frosted poinsettias can be part of a “Frozen” themed display, for example. Try offering customers various sizes as well — tiny poinsettias are gaining popularity in some markets.

In this process, greenhouse temperatures are lowered for the final several weeks of the growing period, cutting costs for growers. This method is not only energy efficient, but it also yields unique horticultural results.

According to a study conducted by Purdue University, RTF produces robust and appealing flowers; the study resulted in an increased postharvest life of the poinsettias, decreased usage of plant growth regulators, as well as more vibrant bract colors.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration is projecting an increase in natural gas prices for next year, so this method will likely become even more prominent in the future.

On the retail side, Morris says that there are many ways to promote the sale of poinsettias.

“Displays are the key with different themes,” she says. “Painted, Hanukkah and ‘Frozen’ are just a few displays with themes that will catch the eye of the end consumer early in the season. Closer to Christmas, go with red plants [to] make the display reflect family and being home for Christmas. If people can envision it, they will buy it.”

Danielle is a 2016 intern for the GIE Media Horticulture Group.