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Looking a Lot Like Christmas : Agriculture: Poinsettias, the vivid holiday favorite, has become America's top-selling plant. California growers earned $23.4 million from last year's crop.


Now is the poinsettia's finest hour, these weeks when sunlight is scarcest, nights are longest and winter bleaches color from the landscape.

Small wonder that these plants have become the nation's best-selling plant, surpassing chrysanthemums, the longtime leader.

The Society of American Florists, a trade association in Alexandria, Va., expects consumers to snap up 46 million poinsettias this season, up from 42 million last year. Their distinctive green under-foliage topped by leaves in vivid shades of color is ubiquitous in flower shops, nurseries, supermarkets and even drugstores during the end-of-year holiday season.

Traditional red species still predominate, said spokeswoman Marvella Crabb, but about 20% now come in mottled tones of red, pink, pure white and--new this season--bright yellow.

California is the leading poinsettia producer. Its growers earned $23.4 million from last year's crop, more than 15% of the nation's $147-million total. That's nearly double the $12 million reported by runner-up Pennsylvania; Ohio ranked third with $10.7 million and Florida fourth with $9 million.

One sure reason for the poinsettia's commercial success is the relatively low price tag attached to a plant that is showy enough to brighten nature's bleakest season. Typical poinsettias sell for $2 to $4 wholesale and often are found selling for less than $5 at retailers who feature them as so-called loss leaders to attract customers.

A steady lengthening in the plant's season of showy color undoubtedly plays a part too. Selective breeding over 30 years in greenhouses, such as those at the sprawling Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch in San Diego County, has developed a plant that can retain seasonal color for several months rather than weeks. Paul Ecke is a major producer and breeder of the plants, furnishing cuttings for commercial growers in the Southland, Arizona and 65 countries.

"Sales would probably be nowhere near where they're at now without the improvements made in the plants over the last 25 years," said George Staby, a former professor of horticulture at Ohio State University who now devotes his time to improving the after-sale performance of poinsettias and other plants.

"My job, working with poinsettias in general, is to make sure that when you buy one and get it home you'll be happy with it," he said. "We try to explain about such things as temperature, light, packing, transportation of the plant and how it will perform in the home."

Staby, whom some call "Dr. Poinsettia," and colleague Richard Woodruff (who specializes in fruits and vegetables), head up the Perishables Research Organization in the Marin County town of Novato. Clients include Conroy's, the flower retailer, where Staby is helping install an automated feeding system that formulates nutrient dosages to prolong the good looks of cut flowers.

In earlier times, Staby said, poinsettia bracts--the colored portion of the leaf--tended to drop much sooner than is typical today. "In those days," he said, "branches of evergreens were stuck into the soil to give a green and 'Christmasy' look." But when the plants were fresh, he added, it would take a trained eye to detect differences from current varieties.

Poinsettias are known as "short-day" plants. They develop their flower buds (the pea-size, yellow cyathia at the center of leaf clusters) when nights grow appreciably longer than days. While the plants now on the market began as cuttings from "mother plants" as far back as last May, growers put them on a regimen in October geared to bringing them to color at the height of the holiday selling season, said Carolyn Mack, spokeswoman for Paul Ecke Poinsettias.

During this period, the plants are placed in strong, indirect light in an environment in which temperatures are maintained in the mid-70s by day. As daylight ebbs, the plants are plunged into darkness and a cooler temperature, about 65 degrees, for 14 or 15 hours. Then they are exposed to indirect light for the next nine or 10 hours. The cycle is then repeated.

According to Washington garden expert Jack Eden, a poinsettia from last season will likely not color up again for the holidays unless a darkness-daylight regimen is imposed along with proper feedings. If such a regimen is followed, full coloring should have taken place by last week, and the plant will continue to show color until about George Washington's birthday.

"You can get them to reflower," Staby said, "but that's a lot of work."

If plants are outdoors, beware of the twin dangers of frost and artificial illumination during the night such as a street lamp or porch light, Staby warned.

"What controls the flowering of poinsettias and chrysanthemums, and a lot of other plants as well, is the amount of sunlight--or, actually, the amount of darkness--they receive. Leave a light on all year long, and they'll be green all year long," Staby said.

"If allowed to grow under natural day-length," he added, "it would flower again."

According to the florists' trade association, there is no truth to the long-lived notion that poinsettias are toxic. It may be, spokeswoman Crabb speculated, that some folks fear the plant because the spelling of its name may suggest "poisonous."

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