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Red Means Go Poinsettias!

By Mick Kulikowski 

Some already had names like Eggnog and Red Elf, while others – now called RF 0514 and SK 62 – hope someday to have clever names like Cinnamon Stick or Christmas Angel.

All were poinsettia plants on display at NC State's Horticultural Field Laboratory and J.C. Raulston Arboretum for the National Poinsettia Trial Program and 2008 Poinsettia Open House. 

One hundred and one varieties of the holiday favorite from six international breeders were put through their paces by plant growers and consumers over two days. 

Dr. John Dole, professor of horticultural science and the NC State faculty member in charge of both the trial program and open house, says that poinsettias are the nation's most important potted flowering plant, with an economic impact of about $1 billion. North Carolina is ranked third in the nation in poinsettia production with about 4.9 million plants, trailing only California and Florida.

Although red poinsettias dominate the market – about 70 to 85 percent of the poinsettias in the market are red, Dole says – there's lots of variety within the category.

Dr. John Dole

Dr. John Dole with just a few of the poinsettias he studies in NC State's Horticultural Field Laboratory.

View a photo gallery from this year's National Poinsettia Trial Program.

Some, like the one called Castor, are so dark that they're almost purple. Others, like Flame, have an orange-red hue. Some have rounded leaves and some have oak-shaped leaves. There are varieties with leaves that either curl up or curl down, and varieties that flower early, starting in November, and other that flower later, in December. There are white poinsettias with specks of pink or red, and red poinsettias with flecks of white, some of which look like they came straight out of an Impressionist painting.

In short, there's a poinsettia out there that's guaranteed to make you smile or crinkle your eyes in wonder.

But, Dole says, it wasn't always this way.

In the wild, poinsettias are actually woody shrubs that grow to heights of 10 to 15 feet. Native to southern climes, they are adapted for dry weather. They started becoming more popular as cut flowers in the early 20th century, but really gained notoriety in the 1950s and '60s, beating out popular plants like begonias and azaleas to become the clear consumer choice for the holiday season. Back then, however, there were only a few varieties, and red dominated the scene.

Since then, number of poinsettia varieties has increased exponentially, which brings us back to NC State's open house and trials. Breeders send their varieties to NC State in the summer. Dole and research technician Ingram McCall grow them in the poinsettia greenhouse, keeping fastidious notes on when they turn color.  Their work helps growers decide which varieties to market during the holiday season.

Many of the varieties are tried and true, while some represent new breeding efforts trying to break into named status – from some combination of letters and numbers into the realm of White Christmas or Premium Picasso. Growers and consumers fill out surveys over the two-day period to mark their preferences.

As for Dole, he likes the darker red varieties along with some of the brighter white varieties. But he refuses to choose just one. But really, how could you decide between varieties with names like Ice Punch, Christmas Curl and Freedom Peppermint?