Holiday Companion Plants

December 16, 2004 - 14:28

Companion plants and mixed containers at the holidays? Well, why not? We are expending so much energy as an industry diversifying all the spring crops; how much sense does it make to keep cycling down to a monoculture for the holidays? Consumers spend more at the holidays than at any other time of year, and they are always looking for something different to give as gift. Commodity crops have a lower price point; ask any poinsettia grower if they are growing to get rich or to keep a cash flow going. Of course, there are ways to grow poinsettias so that they move out of commodity crop and into specialty crop status, and most growers should consider doing this. But, for this month’s article I wanted to focus on plants that can be used at the holiday season to highlight traditional plants and hopefully raise the price point of the holidays. I want to stress that these aren’t crops to replace poinsettias, but to provide additional sales and take the holiday commodity to a new level.

This isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. It is really a recycling of the old-fashioned “Mumsettia” combo pot from many years ago. Many growers still use both white chrysanthemums and English ivy as a simple mixed pot for the holidays. We just want to stretch things even more and see what other crops we can use to tweak holiday sales. The other thing to consider is that many spring crops can be easily produced in the fall/winter and become specialty offerings (again with a higher price point) because they are novelties when blooming out of season.

Survey

At our Poinsettia Variety Trials we display poinsettias combined with other flowering plants to give consumers an idea of what types of arrangements they might try at home to add interest to their holidays. We included a mix of tropical foliage, flowering perennials, bedding plants and herbs, and the response has been pretty funny as well as educational. In Figure 1, page 22, you see the responses of about 334 consumers and growers to different mixes of plant material.

Survey participants were asked to group plants in three categories:

  • Response 1. Looks good with poinsettias; I would buy this as a holiday plant.
  • Response 2. No strong feelings; I probably wouldn’t buy this plant.
  • Response 3. Oh, now that is just wrong; that should not be a holiday plant!

The interesting thing about this survey is that people are pretty accepting of companion crops at the holidays, they like their poinsettias, but they also can see the value of mixing it up a bit. The other thing to keep in mind is that this is a Florida poll; many of the crops we had in our comparisons could be found in the landscape still flowering at the holidays, so our population would be biased against buying something that was already in their home landscape. Northern markets that have snow on the ground might find an entirely different response to these crops. The other interesting thing is the number of people who left blanks; I think these were the same people who were undecided in the presidential elections.

So given that consumers express an interest in something different at the holidays, should we as growers provide companion plants to our retailers? I think we should, but in small doses, and perhaps you should experiment next year with a few more after doing some consumer interest studies in your own area to get a handle on what your retailers and consumers are looking for. There are a few basics you may want to consider. We found that consumers favor companion crops if they augment or accentuate poinsettias. In these terms color, size and texture are your main considerations. There is also an issue with traditional values for the holidays, so aim for something that is simple but tasteful (or not depending on your clientele!).

Color choice becomes very important. Our poinsettia breeders have given us some incredible tones to work with, but many other colors look “wrong” when set next to a pink or red poinsettia. We have two basic types of red poinsettias, orange red and purple red. Which color you use makes a world of difference when it comes to the crop you combine it with. White works with almost all poinsettias; reds and pinks can be problematic. There’s no way to know what works until you experiment a little on your own.

Texture is also a factor; poinsettias are fairly coarse-textured plants. So if you are assembling mixtures you’ll want to go with really coarse-textured plants or very fine-textured plants. This difference in texture works just like it does in spring mixed containers — too much of the same habit or texture and your combinations don’t stand out.

Finally, pot size matters. Most poinsettias are produced in 6- to 7-inch pots; the easiest sale is to use 4-inch pots for your companion plants, as they are more of an impulse buy and again reinforce the differences between the crops.

A few suggestions

Let’s take a look at the crops you might consider and some of the issues involved in producing them.

Chrysanthemums. Like I mentioned earlier, this one is almost a no-brainer. It has a track record of use with poinsettias in the past and is easily scheduled to work into the holidays. Most growers stick with whites, as we don’t have good, true reds and pinks available, especially when you put them next to a poinsettia. Most red chrysanthemums look purple or brown next to a strong red poinsettia. Try adding some 4- or 5-inch white mums into your program; the short-day flowering works well during this portion of the year and works well in greenhouses producing poinsettias. We used Fuji-type mums that are a bit classier than standard types, and single stem 4-inch mums are easy to produce.

Christmas cactus. Again, a traditional staple of the industry, short-day flowering, but Christmas cactus has been marketed more for the early holidays, and the white forms are an outstanding combination with poinsettias. The pink and bronze tones don’t work too well with poinsettias but are certainly options for extending the holiday season. There is a lot of new breeding being done in Australia, and new colors and forms are starting to emerge. Production guidelines are available for most hybrids through your supplier. Another group of plants worth looking into to add on to this niche are the Epiphyllous cacti, with larger flowers, more colors to choose from and a lot of potential for an adventurous grower. The Epiphytic Plant Research and Information Center is an incredible web resource at: www.epric.org/index.html.

Kalanchoe. Again, this crop works in a poinsettia production greenhouse and can be a great addition to holiday sales. Some true reds and clear pinks work great with poinsettias and have a strong post-harvest life. This is a great way to work in the double-flowered Calandiva series from Fides North America, and this hybrid looks like miniature roses. Any of the kalanchoe hybrids will do, but color selection is critical.

Caladium. We used a variety of caladiums, and they were well received in a holiday mix, but only the true whites really got good reviews. The bold texture worked well with both pink and red poinsettias. Caladium availability might be a bit tricky, but with long days and warm greenhouse conditions, it can be done to coincide with poinsettia sales. Again, if you grow this crop out of season, sell it for more than you would in spring.

Hydrangea. In the April 2003 issue of GPN, I discovered some of the Japanese hybrids during the holiday season being sold alongside poinsettias. These were from Bay City Flowers, and another good source for unique forms of Á hydrangeas is Spring Meadow Nurseries. White hydrangeas, both standard and mop-head types, make a great addition to red poinsettias, and while production and scheduling will be a bit different in fall to winter, the crop is an unexpected novelty amidst holiday flowering plants.

The point is that there are actually many options for increasing sales at the holidays; it just takes a bit of creativity to come up with the crops that best augment the poinsettia and other traditional crops. Think about white orchids (Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium), pure white Oriental hybrid lilies, cyclamen and even brugmansia. Don’t stop there; how about incorporating herbs in the holiday mix? This is the main cooking season of the year for most families; how about a rosemary and poinsettia mix. I guess that would be a “Roseietta”?

About The Author

Rick Schoellhorn is extension specialist at the University of Florida, Gainsville, Fla. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 x364 or E-mail at rksch@mail.ifas.ufl.edu.
Author’s Note: Our thanks to NGM productions, Knox Nurseries, Green Masters Inc., Caladiums Online, Baucom’s Nursery and Grandiflora Nursery for their support.

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