Poinsettias are a staple this time of year as a popular holiday decoration and can be found around the world in houses, office buildings and hotels from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. However, this wasn’t always the story of the poinsettia as it took years of research to develop the plant into what it is today.
In the 1950s poinsettias were flashy plants that made a brief appearance in public places shortly before Christmas, only to drop their leaves and colorful flower-like bracts a few days later. They were expensive to grow because their blooming time was difficult to synchronize with the holidays, and the plants easily grew tall and leggy. In fact, according to an article, wild poinsettias can grow to be eight feet tall in their native southern Mexico.
Then in the 1960s, USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) horticulturalist H. Marc Cathey began to use poinsettias in his research on the chemical control of plant growth. He found several compounds among the hundreds he tested, which could be used as treatments to keep plants compact in size.
As stated in the article, Cathey went on to discover that exposing poinsettias to three seconds of light every minute—or three minutes every hour—from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. each night held poinsettias on the brink of flowering until growers were ready to ship them for the holidays.
More improvements came in the 1970s as geneticist Robert N. Stewart found poinsettias to be an excellent research model as evolutionarily primitive plants. At this time, many scientific meetings were held between Christmas and New Year’s, and at the beginning of the meetings hotel lobbies would be dressed up with poinsettias, but by the end, all the leaves had dropped off the plants, Stewart recounted in the article.
Stewart knew he could do something to change this and went on to develop poinsettia breeding lines known for their ability to last under non-greenhouse conditions and be naturally compact. His “ruff and ready” variety is still used as a parent for new poinsettia cultivars being bred today, nearly 40 years later.
The most recent contribution to improving poinsettias is the work of plant pathologist Ing-Ming Lee. He discovered that phytoplasmas—minute organisms that usually cause plant diseases—induce the dense, free branching growth so highly prized in poinsettias. His findings has also led the way for growers to produce virus-free plants.
Now, poinsettias are America’s number-one potted plant, with nearly 80 million sold for more than $250 million annually, even though the market is only six weeks long each year.
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