The poinsettia market, which industry experts believe is stable, is a good example of a horticultural market that needs to be looking ahead to continue to grow.
“You go up or down, but you never stay the same,” says Mike Gooder, president of Plantpeddler, a company that, among other things, trials poinsettias and makes recommendations to growers. “If we’re staying stable, we’re probably losing market share.”
A handful of breeders are working feverishly to stay current on trends and ensure the market for poinsettias doesn’t stagnate. Red poinsettias are still the consumer and retailer favorites, especially among retailers pushing Black Friday sales. However, that hasn’t stopped breeders from coming up with an interesting array of other colors and types of poinsettias, including white, pink, mixed and interspecies crosses, such as the popular Princettia, to lure consumers.
Making a better mouse trap
In the case of poinsettias, the trend isn’t always toward coming up with a new mouse trap, but creating an improved one.
“Reds are most dominant,” says Gary Vollmer, product and technical manager for Selecta North America. Vollmer puts the percentage of red varieties grown at about 80 percent. “[However] we’re seeing strong numbers for white poinsettias and growth in specialty, novelty types such as Princettia.”
While breeders would like to come up with a dazzling new poinsettia, they are often putting much of their efforts into growing a great-looking red poinsettia that is easy to grow, heat tolerant, holds up in the sleeves, has a long shelf life, ships well and is favored by consumers and retailers.“Growers are looking for something that is easy to grow and has really big bracts,” says Karl Trellinger, technical services manager for Syngenta Flowers. Trellinger works extensively with breeders and product managers and says it’s important for the industry to have poinsettias that are suitable for painting. White poinsettias lend themselves well to painting, including Syngenta Flowers’ Whitestar variety.
While red poinsettias may be the most dominant color, it’s not just any old red.
“I think the reds are always going to play a prominent role, [and] we’re seeing a little bit of a shift in customer preference in the color of red,” says Angela Mekjian, product manager for Dümmen Orange. “I think there is an assumption that a dark bluish red has been a good thing, but when you put it in front of consumer panels they’re actually choosing a more bright [red] — what we would consider an orangish red — or what they would describe as a cheerful red.”
Shelf life is the other aspect of improving upon red varieties. Retailers, who one breeder describes as the gatekeepers between growers and consumers, understand the importance of producing a good, sturdy plant that will have a long shelf life.
“I’m very pleased that in the last two to three years, we’ve seen a categorical shift in the mindset of the retailer, focusing on getting good genetics at the right time and getting a product that is going to hold up long-term instead of arguing about the shape of a bract,” says Vollmer. He says Selecta is focusing much of their breeding efforts in this area.
The other consideration, of course, is the expectations of the consumer. Increasingly savvy consumers, who look for four to five-star ratings on everything they buy online, expect their poinsettia to look good well past New Year’s.
“We don’t want them to throw them away because they look bad, but because they no longer need it,” says Vollmer. “Getting that shelf life has become a critical thing to get retailers to focus on.”
“Plants have to be tough,” Trellinger says. “The days when people buy plants and they die are over.”
The other practical aspect to improving on poinsettias is better performance for growth, and there are many variables breeders look at. One of these variables is heat tolerance. Poinsettias typically don’t perform well in extreme heat, especially the heat they’re faced with in greenhouses in the southern states during the summer months, when rooted cuttings are being planted in greenhouses. Syngenta Flowers is one company addressing this challenge for growers and has introduced two varieties, Lyra and Mirage, that Trellinger says will take the heat.
“Mirage is compact with medium vigor, great for tight spacing and Black Friday promotions,” says Trellinger. “Lyra is the more vigorous one and is excellent for overall pot sizes and flowering for Thanksgiving. Both do very well in the heat of the Deep South and Florida, have an outstanding vibrant red color, and large yellow centers, which don’t fall out.”
Poinsettia breeder Steve Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Poinsettias, worked at Ecke Ranch in product management and research and development for 28 years before branching out on his own. He’s also working on new varieties that can take the heat. Much attention has been placed on aesthetics, he says, but it’s more important that a poinsettia can be grown successfully by growers and have a strong shelf life.
“After three years of breeding, I’ve mainly trialed my stuff in the heat trials,” he says. “The varieties are working well in the heat, but it’s going to take a few years for growers to understand the varieties and have confidence,” he says. His varieties are numbered because they’re still in the trial stages. He says his 552 is a late-season variety that will take the heat and is sturdy with an upright V-shaped growing habit that doesn’t droop, and it stays that way through shipping.
Another factor breeders and growers are concerned about is bench time. Poinsettias are in the greenhouses much longer than most bedding plants and sometimes must compete with fall mums for space. The quicker growers can get them in and out, the better.
Low light conditions will help growers in northern climates, Mekjian says. Dümmen Orange’s Ferrara is one variety she says will decrease bench time and reduce the use of PGRs.
Trialing and trends
Poinsettias go through a vetting process before being presented or recommended to growers. During this trialing period, breeders can have a third party evaluate their selections to see how well they will perform in many different situations.
Gooder is the go-to guy for these breeders. As such, it places Gooder at the crossroads of what’s ahead for the poinsettia industry.
“We’re the feed-through that establishes new selections and gets them into the hands of growers,” says Gooder. “We’ve trialed over 120 poinsettias this year and are up to 2,000 total.”
Gooder says he sees breeders experimenting with interspecies, or interspecific crosses involving two species of euphorbia, much like they’ve done with petunias and calibrachoa, to come up with a petchoa spp., which is an improvement on both species.
“Some of the first successful crosses were the Princettia from Suntory and Love You Pink from Ecke,” he says. “There are some attributes of the interspecific crosses like new color range, different growth habits, controlled growth and different forms that interspecifics can lend themselves to, so we think that will be an important trend in the future.
“Most of the breeders are working on different interspecific crosses to try to change up the game a bit,” says Gooder.
“I think the other trend is the change in the marketplace as far as the dominant players,” continues Gooder. “Back in the day, Ecke controlled the majority of market share. In the last ten years, we’ve seen a swing to other breeders having a position in the marketplace.” He adds that the number of growers is staying about the same but many of them are consolidating, which he thinks might not be the best thing for the industry.
Challenges that lie ahead
“The biggest challenge right now is predicting the next big challenge,” says Dümmen Orange’s Mekjian. “When your breeding has overcome so many challenges in the past and brought solutions to growers, then you’ve already solved a lot of issues that are out there. The real challenge is to know what’s next. Our varieties may need to handle previously unknown insects and diseases or the environmental demands of new supply chain methods. Anticipating and addressing this is half the battle.”
Another challenge is predicting what type of poinsettias the next generation is going to be interested in buying.
“This group of consumers seems to be less traditional in their color choices; gold, green, hot pink, and splashes of color are interesting to them,” says Mekjian. “They also tend to buy the medium to smaller sizes, since they are often not yet decorating large homes.” On a similar note, Gooder thinks the interspecies varieties — for example the different colors of Princettias — may be of interest to younger buyers who like to add a little bling to their lives.
The most important challenge may be in never losing sight of the consumer. Everyone in the supply chain from breeders to retailers need to communicate with each other, and more importantly, with the consumer to ensure they’re all on the same page.
“I think sometimes we make assumptions about what the customer wants that doesn’t necessarily hold up when you ask the customer,” says Mekjian.
One thing appears to be evident. Breeders will continue to not only try to improve on the tried-and-true poinsettias, but also come up with something that will change the game.
“Everybody wants something that is really different, that blows their mind away,” says Trellinger. “But so far nobody has got it, so it’s still red.”