Who Cares for Poinsettias?

December 31, 2002 - 13:06

Handling, display, maintenance?pass it on.

This is the time of the year when every poinsettia grower is
breathing a sigh of relief, now that all, or most all, of the crop has been
shipped and hopefully sold to consumers who value their beautiful plants.
Poinsettias, as everyone knows, have become a traditional Thanksgiving and
Christmas fixture throughout the United States, making them the best-selling
plant at that time of year. With all of the colors, shapes and sizes,
poinsettias brighten up any environment.

Poinsettias are sold in a wide range of markets, big box
stores, grocery stores, retail florists, retail greenhouses and even
fundraisers. However, sales of poinsettias have been flat or only slightly
increasing over the past few years. This could be due to saturation of the
market, as poinsettias are the only real crop for many growers this time of
year. And in addition to our own overproduction, we get flooded by product from
Canada.

Problems of Care

Growing and shipping poinsettias are not the easiest things
to do. Besides the long crop time, poinsettias can suffer from late-season
problems such as bract edge burn, Botrytis on the bracts, stem breakage,
cyathia drop and root rot. For wholesale shipping in boxes or on carts,
poinsettias should be grown with smaller and more toned bracts than those grown
for retail. Typically, wholesale plants are placed in decorative pot covers,
dropped into some type of sleeve, and either boxed or stacked on carts. They
are then shipped to big box or grocery stores, where they are divided up for
further shipping or display.

Unfortunately, poinsettias may stay boxed for three-plus
days and are many times kept in their sleeves until take-home by a consumer.
Their post-harvest life is greatly decreased by such handling, resulting in
Botrytis on bracts, dropping of bracts or leaves, and a general decline in
plant quality. Stores tend to use boxes for displays, often leaving plants in
boxes while displaying other plants on top of the boxes. Plants are left in the
sleeves so store personnel and consumers can easily pick them up and move them
out. Pots are watered over the sleeves, with the pot covers catching the water
and increasing the risk of root rots. Also, when plants are watered while still
in the sleeves, bracts stay wet and get Botrytis. I have seen many poinsettias
displayed outside stores in the warmer parts of the country, left in the sun,
exposed to wind and watered overhead at the end of the day. Can you imagine how
long those plants will keep their beauty?

The consumer would more readily buy poinsettias in any store
if they could see them in all of their beauty, meaning out of the sleeves. The
attractive pot covers and even the sleeves help sell the plants, but where are
the POP, signage and instructions for their care? Alas, you need to look for
the tag to find out how to care for your poinsettia. And that tag is readily
covered up by the plant. Consumers typically place plants in the wrong
locations, resulting in a quick drop of leaves, damage to bracts or death of
the plants. And don't forget about the yearly media mention of how poinsettias
are poisonous.

Solutions

Every year, I am absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of care
during handling, shipping, display and sale of poinsettias in the marketplace.
Being a consultant, it is easy to point out the problems, but a good consultant
also proposes solutions to those problems. So, here are my solutions to improve
the care of poinsettias.

First, growers need to work more closely with store buyers
to devise reasonable specifications for what plants should look like and how
they should be shipped. Soft plants do not ship well but toned plants will.
Growing taller plants with more bracts is not the answer, nor is growing them
at close spacing. Reduce the number of plants produced, as the stores are not
obligated to take all of the plants that buyers order. Use merchandisers in the
stores, just like in the spring season. Get rid of boxes, and convince the
stores to take sleeved plants on carts. Use sleeves that breathe (have lots of
air holes). Make sure that at shipment, plants have healthy root systems, no
damage to bracts or leaves, and proper moisture. Keep time in transit to an
absolute minimum (less than two days), and grow varieties that will ship better
(dark-leaf). There is great research out of the University of Florida from
Terril Nell and Jim Barrett about post-harvest life of all the varieties. And
how about an information sheet to store personnel on how to care for the
poinsettias once they receive them?

Second, stores need to unsleeve plants immediately when
received and display them properly (no drafts or full sun, please!). Consumers
will stop in their tracks when poinsettias are displayed en masse in an
attractive way. Make it easy for them to pick out their plants and sleeve them
themselves. Rework displays every day, removing damaged plants and replacing
them with fresh ones. Categorize poinsettia displays with fresh fruit and
vegetable displays; they are just as perishable, if not more.

And finally, how about having more information for the
consumer on how to care for their poinsettias? We are doing so much with POP
and branding during the spring (and even with pansies in the fall), but we
neglect poinsettias. Tell the consumer to punch holes in the pot covers and
place plants in saucers to water them (maybe even sell them the saucers with
their plants). Or better yet, how about getting rid of pot covers all together
and using more colored pots? 

About The Author

Dr. Roger C. Styer is president of Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Inc., Batavia, Ill. He can be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542, fax at (630) 208-0966 or E-mail at carleton@voyager.net.

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