WOOSTER, Ohio -- If you live in Ohio and bought a poinsettia for the holidays, chances are Ohio State University agricultural scientists, educators or alumni had a hand in making them look beautiful and healthy.
The university's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) is involved in all areas that support poinsettia production -- training students on growing techniques and proper care, working with producers to address their needs and evaluate new varieties, and conducting research that tackles pest management problems unique to this popular plant.
Such support is crucial for the success of Ohio's greenhouse industry, which is a major national player in poinsettia production and boasts some of the largest growers of this crop nationwide. The Buckeye state typically ranks fifth or sixth in the country in production of herbaceous ornamentals, a category dominated by poinsettias, and is sixth overall in production of flower crops.
The best-selling potted plant in the U.S., poinsettias have an annual wholesale value of $139 million (35 million plants sold) and a retail value of more than $250 million, according to 2011 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ohio's share of this wholesale pie is $13 million (3.6 million pants sold). Poinsettias' contribution to the state's economy is further increased once jobs, taxes and other revenues generated by the production and sale of these plants are factored into the equation.
Coming Full Circle
Meeting in a conference room at Green Circle Growers -- Ohio's largest greenhouse operation and one of the biggest in the U.S., sprawling at the intersection of U.S. 20 and State Route 511 outside of Oberlin -- Dean Palm and Luis Cañas talk about their plans for joint research projects in 2013.
The meeting, held on a recent December morning as workers hustled to package and ship some of the 2 million poinsettias Green Circle Growers produces every year, exemplifies the deep connections Ohio State has with the industry responsible for brightening the holidays with deep reds, pale pinks, light greens and the many other colors in which these delicate flowers are now available.
Dean Palm and Luis Cañas said collaborative research benefits both the industry and the university.
Palm, a buyer of greenhouse inputs (fertilizer, insecticides) and equipment, graduated from Ohio State with a horticulture degree in 1974 and has been with Green Circle Growers ever since. Cañas, an associate professor and entomology specialist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension (both part of CFAES), specializes in pest management in greenhouses and other controlled environments.
Cañas helps Green Circle Growers and many other greenhouse operations, large and small, find safe and cost-effective ways to deal with insects that target poinsettias.
"We like to be on the cutting-edge of technology, be proactive, and find new and better ways of doing things," Palm said. "But testing new technologies and pest-control methods takes time and lots of experimentation to see if they work for us. Working with Luis and his students, we can cut years of testing on our end and move faster. His experience on top of our experience has a complementary effect."
A success story is Green Circle Growers' adoption of biological control agents to deal with white flies and fungus gnats, the top insect pests of poinsettia production, instead of chemical insecticides. For the past seven years, Cañas has worked with Palm to study the effectiveness and viability of using stingless wasps and entomopathogenic nematodes (tiny roundworms that are natural insect killers) to control these pests.
"More and more biological control methods are becoming available, but before growers decide to adopt them and make the required investments, they want to know if they are really effective, if they would work in their particular growing conditions and facilities, and if they are cost-effective compared to chemicals," Cañas said.
Palm said the joint research conducted with Ohio State has demonstrated that the stingless wasps and the nematodes are both effective and economically sound.
"Today, we are one of the top users of nematodes and an industry leader in the use of biological controls," Palm said. "That gives us a competitive advantage over other poinsettia growers around the country."
Poinsettia "trees" are becoming increasingly popular, along with new cultivated varieties created by breeders and evaluated by Ohio State.
Green Circle Growers and other greenhouse operations also work together with Ohio State floriculture expert Claudio Pasian, who conducts various grower and consumer evaluations of new poinsettia cultivated varieties, or cultivars, put out by breeders every year.
"These trials give breeders an idea of how much their cultivars are appreciated, as well as excellent exposure of their cultivars to greenhouse growers," Pasian said. "Breeders are constantly trying to keep the public interested with something new and better. The growers, on the other hand, want cultivars that are not only attractive to consumers but also easy to grow."
Just like Palm, Ohio State trains and graduates professionals with the right set of skills to join the greenhouse industry.
Because poinsettias are such an important flower crop in Ohio, second-year horticulture students at Ohio State's Agriculture Technical Institute (ATI) in Wooster learn all aspects of their production, growing them from rooted cuttings donated by the industry and taking care of them under commercial production conditions until they are ready to decorate someone's house or school come November and December.
Under the leadership of Robert McMahon, associate professor and coordinator of the greenhouse program at ATI, every year students grow approximately 1,200 poinsettias of various sizes, ranging from 4.5-inch pots to the increasingly popular poinsettia trees. The process culminates with a sale to the public, which helps fund the school's greenhouse program.
"The daily tending of their crops gives my students 'real-world' experience just as a full-time grower in the industry would have growing this crop," said McMahon, whose former students are employed at various green industry businesses, including Green Circle Growers. "This experience makes my students very desirable in the industry because they actually know how to grow a crop, instead of just reading about it and doing some experiments in a research greenhouse."
Josh Henry is one of Robert McMahon's horticulture students who grew poinsettias this year at Ohio State ATI. (Photo courtesy of Josh Henry)
Josh Henry, one of McMahon's students and a native of Cleveland, appreciates his experience growing poinsettias throughout summer and fall this year.
"It's fun watching them all come up at the same time and color up," said Henry, who plans to move to Ohio State's Columbus campus next year to obtain a bachelor's degree in horticulture. "I've learned poinsettias can be very touchy and need more care than other plants. But they are one of my favorite crops to grow."
Thanks to Ohio State and its many industry partners, poinsettias are likely to continue to be a holiday favorite for millions of Americans in many years to come.