The state's growers have shipped almost all their flowers for Christmas

Poinsettias in bloom

December 13, 2006|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

The 70,000-square-foot glass greenhouse is mostly empty at Greenstreet Growers Inc.

Only two weeks ago, red, white and mauve poinsettias lined row after row of tables. By the end of this week, 90 percent of the 30,000 plants will be gone, sent to retail nurseries across the region.

As trucks rolled out along the Lothian farm's gravel roads Monday, workers continued to put the finishing touches on the blooming plants, sprinkling gold glitter to gild red petals, known as bracts, and spraying a blue "frost" or purple stripes on white poinsettias.

Greenstreet Growers is one of the largest wholesale poinsettia growers in Maryland, shipping more than 1 million cuttings to other growers nationwide as well as cultivating plants for other nurseries.

A gardener's version of Santa's workshop, Greenstreet is in the peak season of shipping and selling, as demand goes through the roof for the Christmas season.

Yesterday was National Poinsettia Day, the anniversary of the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He fell in love with the Central American plant in 1828 during a visit to southern Mexico and brought it back with him to his South Carolina plantation. Poinsett sent the plant to friends, and eventually nurseries began to sell it. It became known as the poinsettia as early as 1836.

Because poinsettias bloom when the nights become longer, the plant became linked to Christmas, according to the Paul Ecke Ranch in California, one of the largest growers in the U.S.

Since growers began to market the plant around Christmas in the 1920s, it has become as much a part of the holidays as the Christmas tree. This year, federal officials forecast more than $244.7 million in poinsettia sales.

Poinsettia nurseries make up only a small percentage of farms in Maryland, but they help preserve agriculture in the state, said Ray Greenstreet, who owns the firm with his wife, Stacy. Farmers struggle to make a living with soybeans and corn, he said.

The Greenstreets bought their 55-acre farm in 2000 and spent more than $1 million the following year to import and construct the glass greenhouse from Holland.

Last year, Behnke Nurseries Co. relocated its production center from Largo to Lothian, where land is less expensive, said controller Bill Parsley. The move also allowed the company to replace its aging greenhouses.

Behnke produces 55,000 poinsettias for the holiday season. About 60 percent goes to wholesale buyers and the rest are shipped to Behnke's retail stores in Beltsville and Potomac.

Behnke generates more than $500,000 in sales from poinsettias, about 4 percent of its overall business, Parsley said.

At Greenstreet, the poinsettia-growing season starts in mid-June, when it receives cuttings from plant breeders in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Ray Greenstreet chills the cuttings to make them stiff, then sticks the cuttings into soil cubes where they can take root.

More than 1 million rootings are shipped until mid-September to other nurseries nationwide, where they are raised into full-grown plants. Greenstreet Growers keeps a portion of the rootings to nurture for its own retail business. It also finishes plants for Bell Nursery in Burtonsville, Ray Greenstreet's former employer.

To get poinsettias to bloom from late September to November, nothing can interrupt the long winter nights. Greenstreet turns off all his outside lights and even has workers turn off headlights at night.

"Once you interrupt that night, it sets them back to the beginning," Greenstreet said. "You can't miss a day."

In addition, the greenhouse temperature must stay above 60 degrees.

Breeders have been toying with novelty colors, shapes and sizes since horticulturists first created the white poinsettia through cross-pollination. It has been only in the last 10 years that the niche has taken off, said John Bouwkamp, an associate professor in the department of plant science at the University of Maryland.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, customers gravitated back to traditional red and white for several years, Greenstreet said. Red was seen as patriotic.

"You couldn't give away mauve poinsettias," he said.

Red poinsettias still make up 80 percent of sales, but in the last two years, customers seem to be willing to try new colors, he said.

A red poinsettia bred with pink-flecked bracts is known as Jingle Bells. White Star is red with variegated or green-and-white leaves. Strawberries and Cream has serrated pink bracts with white edges. Burgundy, a deeper red, also sells well, Greenstreet said. Plum Pudding has been popular in the Baltimore area among Ravens fans, Bouwkamp said.

Monet, a rose-pink with white speckles, is flying off the tables at Behnke's stores, Parsley said.

Growers, however, are still wary of "colors," a category that includes everything but plain red, Parsley said. "All the growers everywhere fear that they will be stuck with colors," he said.

Breeders also have experimented with shapes. The bracts of the Winter Rose curl under at the edges and cluster in thick heads, similar to roses. Carousel, which has bracts with rounded edges that curl like a ruffled shirt, is Greenstreet's favorite. It hardly looks like a poinsettia at all.

"People either love it or hate it," he said.

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