Buyers' demand is still high for poinsettias

Scripps Howard News Service Published:

There's no doubt that poinsettias, particularly the red ones, reign at Christmas.

Entrenched as a key holiday decoration in vivid red and green, the plant is a good mover for nurseries while providing critical income for growers at a time of year when few other flowers can be picked and sold.

The plant "just gives us an income to keep us going through the winter," said Diane Davis, co-owner of DoRight's Plant Growers in Santa Paula, Calif.

Davis and her husband, Dudley, grow and ship about 80,000 poinsettias and about 120,000 red and white cyclamens, the other plant the grower sells from mid-November to the third week in December.

"It gives us the ability to keep our employees all year around," Davis said.

Poinsettias brought in $2.6 million to Ventura County alone in 2012.

"They are important for us," said Henry Gonzales, the county's agricultural commissioner.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico, where they grow in the tropical forests and hot interiors. They came to the United States by way of Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought back clippings. He died in 1851 on Dec. 12, now recognized as Poinsettia Day.

People see the plants as a holiday necessity, on par with Christmas trees in consumers' loyalty.

Poinsettias in Ventura County grow in greenhouses and can be a challenge, growers say.

Their photosensitive bracts, or modified leaves, require specific amounts of nighttime and daylight to produce the bright red color, and the lighting must be timed correctly to get a robust red for the holidays.

Antonio Ayala, production manager for Milgro Nursery and Victoria Nurseries in Oxnard, Calif., the county's largest poinsettia grower, watches more 300,000 plants during the holiday season across 15 acres of greenhouses.

"'It's the timing -- you have to keep track of the height," Ayala said. "Supermarkets want 15 inches to 18 or 19 inches tall. So we have to hit that window."

Milgro sells poinsettias to supermarkets, and the market is "red" hot this year.

"If we had more, we could've sold more; the demand is there," Ayala said. "It's tradition."

Yamamoto Farms Inc. in Oxnard is a small grower compared to Milgro. President Tom Yamamoto grows about 50,000 poinsettias that he sells wholesale through brokers to the big-box stores and some smaller retailers.

Yamamoto describes the plants and the market as "a necessary evil." He makes less money on them than 14 years ago, but they account for more than a third of his business.

"They are probably one of few crops you can grow as much as you're able and still move it," he said.

Yamamoto and others, particularly the nurseries that sell the potted plants, attribute the drop in value to big-box stores that sell poinsettias at low prices.

The constant pressure for cheaper plants makes Yamamoto question poinsettias' sustainability.

"It's very challenging," he said. "There will probably be some point in time when we can't afford to do it."

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