A holiday crop examination

Features - Cover Story

Traditional poinsettias are still the most common holiday crop, but breeding and production changes offer a hint at what’s to come.

July 21, 2021

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More often than not, the phrase ‘holiday plant’ still means poinsettia. Come October, November and December, shelves at big-box stores and independent garden centers (IGCs) are stocked with poinsettias, primarily in traditional red with more colors being added over time.

“We haven’t seen anything of significance rise to replace it,” says Plantpeddler owner Mike Gooder. “And I think in the consumer’s eye, the poinsettia is the plant for Christmas.”

There are changes in the market, however. There is no replacing the poinsettia, but changes are occurring and developing on the margins. For one, more colors — whites, greens, oranges and more — are being bred, trialed and then reaching consumers. Poinsettia growing season is changing too, with the hope that poinsettias can be sold in early fall and after Christmas in colors that fit those moments.

“They are getting harder and harder to sell,” says Nicole Bent, president of Shelmerdine Garden Centre in Manitoba. “I look at them as a commodity plant that you can find in any big-box store — Walmart, Safeway, wherever. It’s harder for the garden center to sell them without making them look like something above and beyond what is available at a big-box store.”

A retail point of view

According to Bent, one of the steps Shelmerdine has taken in recent years is to begin “dressing up” poinsettias more.

“We have gravitated to using better pot covers and using glitter to make them look like the special plant they are,” she says. “You also have to watch your pricing too because when you can buy a poinsettia at Walmart for $9.99, why would you spend $14.99 at a garden center?”

Pricing she says, has to be monitored carefully as to not be too far out of line with what customers can buy at a competitor, even if what Shelmerdine offers is more unique.

Bent adds that, in recent years, the business has started to diversify what it offers around the holiday season. One project they’ve focused on are amaryllis bulbs — a trend they found was successful in Europe and are hoping will translate in North America over time. The hope is that if they are losing market share on poinsettias to big box stores, offering amaryllis bulbs will help replace any lost revenue.

“It hasn’t totally hit yet, but we think it will get bigger in the next few years,” she says. “One thing we really think will help are the wax bulbs that have been introduced over the last several years. It’s basically an amaryllis bulb that has been dipped in wax. Everything the plant needs to live is in that wax cover, so the bulb just grows. You can decorate around it, put it on a plate to showcase it and the flower just continues to grow and bloom.”

The only downside, Bent says, is that the wax-covered bulb will die after the holiday season ends. Traditional amaryllis bulbs can be saved and re-grown year after year, so there is some downside for the customer expecting a long-lasting plant.

“We did notice in 2019, the first year that we sold wax bulbs, that people just didn’t get it [as a concept],” Bent says. “But last year, even with COVID and online ordering, they were totally sold out.” This year, with COVID-19 not keeping customers at home quite as much, will see if the trend holds since people will assumedly be out more.

As for poinsettias, Bent estimates that Shelmerdine produces around 10,000 poinsettias per year with 9,000 allotted for fundraising programs and the remaining 1,000 sold in store. That split has been consistent for the last 15-20 years and the in-store poinsettias are 75% red, 15% white and the remaining a mix of “novelty” colors of pink and burgundies. Unique wraps are used to differentiate the more standard design available at larger retailers. Smaller alternatives like Princettia and poinsettia trees have gained some steam, but have not made nearly the impact that poinsettias do on the bottom line.

“We also would have a hard time making a profit without the volume of the fundraising program,” Bent says. “And with new items, we have to keep looking for the next thing.”

Cleaner-looking white poinsettias are among the varieties that have been successfully bred over the last few years.
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Amaryllis bulbs are one crop now being sold during the holiday season, but they have not overtaken poinsettias in the market.

Trialed improvements

At Cresco, Iowa-based Plantpeddler, Gooder and his team operate one of the biggest poinsettia trials in the United States. (Others include N.G. Heimos’ trial in Millstadt, Illinois, and Lucas Greenhouses’ trial in Monroeville, New Jersey.) Over the past several years, he says poinsettia genetics available from breeders has improved greatly.

“Poinsettias can be a difficult crop to grow,” he says. “But in the last three to five years, a number of important enhancements have been made. People says ‘oh, the poinsettia has plateaued,’ but that could not be farther from the truth.”

“We are seeing incremental breeding improvements and that’s really important,” he continues. “One of the things breeders are working on is early ‘blushing’ but late flowering.” The idea, he says, is that in the past, some varieties wouldn’t be ready to ship when the bracts began opening up, but the color wasn’t right. With new breeding, the plant won’t fully open up as early.

“This means we can ship over a longer window,” Gooder says. “Instead of having varieties to gap multiple weeks, they can cover multiple weeks by picking [better genetics].” Branching characteristics have improved too, he says, noting that branching has become more uniform.

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The impact of color

According to Gooder, the biggest advancement in recent years has been white poinsettias. Before, many of the poinsettias were what he called a “dirty white.” Now, what’s available is often brighter and feature more of the clean, white look customers prefer.

Red, however, still remains king. Chris Berg, a senior product manager at Dümmen Orange, says red remains the most common color in their portfolio and in every breeder’s portfolio.

Dümmen, Berg says, also divides its poinsettia catalogue into different seasons. Reds, he says, primarily play for Christmas, with greens and oranges hitting the market aimed at fall consumers who aren’t looking for a Christmas plant just yet.

“It’s looking at the retail partners we have and looking into how we can tap into what they are doing and pushing,” he says. For Dümmen, breeding work occurs in Ecke, California, where breeding manager Ruth Kobayashi oversees efforts to bring new options to market.

“It’s a funny candy shop and there’s so much there to work with,” Berg says. “So we can go in there, see what’s available, match it with what’s been popular as far as holiday decor goes. From there, we can start working and sometimes fast track varieties that we think can make an impact for us.”

In Plantpeddler’s trials, Gooder notes that the best varieties available aren’t just coming from the biggest breeders in the industry.

“There are really great selections right now from every major breeder and every minor breeder,” he says. “Steve Rinehart, a new player who came from Ecke, has a few whites that we absolutely love. If you go program by program, there’s great stuff from Selecta, Syngenta, Beekenkamp, the Dümmen Orange program or Lazzeri, the new Italian breeder.”

“Gerbera ‘Red Glitter’ is the best glitter type, the best Jingle type, on the market in my opinion. It’s from Lazzeri, a new player. Those competitive dynamics help improve everybody’s game,” Gooder adds.

Future nostalgia

According to Berg, the biggest step forward for poinsettias is not so much increasing sales around Christmas and doubling down and what has been done already. It’s not even Princettia varieties or poinsettia trees. Instead, the idea is to expand the season over time with new genetics and new colors.

For example, this could mean developing more whites that fit the tone of traditional New Year’s decor vs. the reds of Christmas.

“For instance, the Ecke company was trying to develop that fall crop for years. And in some cases that has gotten really strong,” Berg says. “And we will see if we can extend into the New Year.”

At Shelmerdine, Bent says the holiday season has evolved over time for the business, with decor, ornaments and other trinkets available at the garden center becoming more popular during the holidays. In recent years, she says that there has also been an interest in tropicals and succulents being given as gifts vs. a poinsettia.

“But I don’t think we’d feel like a Christmas store — or that it would feel like Christmas — without us having poinsettias,” she says. “And we take a lot of pride in growing them in-house. It’s not a bread-and-butter crop like an annual, but this bridges us throughout the winter and allows us to keep people employed and our grower busy.”

Gooder, meanwhile, says that Plantpeddler will produce about 1.75 million poinsettias for the upcoming holiday season. Princettias and other novelties are showing good growth as well. Painted poinsettias and other novelties are around, but poinsettias still lead the way. He expects that to continue.

“For a crop that a lot of people say doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t make any money, there’s been a lot of money and time spent in breeding efforts to improve the product,” he says.