In the middle of summer when backyard vegetable plots are hitting their production peak, home gardeners might be surprised to learn that it’s also a prime time for growing poinsettias.

Between June 15 and Aug. 1, virtually all of the poinsettias that will provide centerpieces for holiday decorations quietly arrive in the United States as unrooted shoot tips taken from mother plants grown in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. These unrooted cuttings, which are grown primarily by contract farmers for large American horticultural firms, account for 95 percent or more of the poinsettias sold in North America each year, according to Jim Kennedy, sales manager for Selecta North America, one of the leading breeding and propagation companies for vegetative propagated ornamental plants worldwide.

“Each shipment can contain hundreds of thousands or even a million or more unrooted shoot tips at at a time,” said Hector Romero, a customs broker in Atlanta. The arrival of the plantlets in the United States goes virtually unnoticed except for customs officials at the two arrival points, Miami International Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, and the commercial horticulture industry. The shoot tips have to be shipped without roots to meet USDA regulations to limit the possibility of introducing pests or diseases on imported plant material.

Once the plantlets clear customs, they are shipped to commercial greenhouse growers all over the United States and Canada. When they arrive at the commercial greenhouses, growers will need about 120 days to root and grow them into a marketable size for the holidays, said Kennedy.

Christmas Glory poinsettia

'Christmas Glory' is one of the new varietals. (Photo: John Dole)

Each summer, plants on the benches include new varieties that were selected the previous fall at the annual North American Poinsettia Trials. The trials, which are held at three locations in different parts of the country, last year celebrated their 20th anniversary. Which begs the question, what new varieties are arriving from Central America that will be the hot new sellers you’ll see at nurseries and in stores this holiday season?

The most comprehensive list, said John Dole, a professor of horticultural Science at North Carolina State University and one of the coordinators for the trials, is in an article he co-authored for Greenhouse Product News. Traditionalists who favor red and those who like something unusual will have the most choices.

Among the reds on the list is one called ‘Solar’ that will have a distinctive leaf shape. Poinsettia bracts, which are the colorful modified leaves rather than the flowers that make poinsettias so attractive, typically come to a point. ‘Solar,’ however, was bred to have a bract shaped like an oak leaf. Those who like intense colors should be thrilled with ‘Bravo Bright Red.’ It gets its name from an especially bright color, which will have an orange cast, and vigorous growth habit. Another new red that was bred for growth habit is ‘Prima Red.’ Growers and consumers alike should be happy with its distinctive round form, which should reduce the possibility of damage in shipping to ensure that it makes it to consumers’ homes in excellent condition.

Christmas Beauty Nostalgia poinsettia

'Christmas Beauty Nostalgia' (Photo: John Dole)

For those who like to spice up the season with something unusual, there will be plenty of new novelties to choose from. Among these cultivars, Dole notes that if one of them, ‘Christmas Beauty Nostalgia’ (above), was a hydrangea the color of its bracts would be called antique pink. When the bracts are young, they are a dark pink. As the plant ages, the bracts turn a lighter pink with green edges. Other novelties feature bracts with rosy red flecks (‘Early Twilight’), pink spots on red bracts (‘Jubilee Jingle Bells’ and ‘Premier Jingle Bells’) and creamy-yellow pink bracts with rosy pink spots and splashes (‘Viking Cinnamon’).

Premimum white 2012 poinsettia

'Premimum White 2012' (Photo: John Dole)

If a white cultivar is your color of preference, you will not be disappointed in the new choices for 2013. ‘Glace’ had the brightest white bracts at the trial, but it matures late in the season and may not be available in central and northern states. ‘Jubilee White’ will have creamy white bracts and 'Premium White 2012' (pictured above) will have the added flair of little green veining in its white bracts.

Only one pink cultivar was selected during the trials. That is ‘Premier Pink,’ which features medium pink bracts and darker pink young bracts.

In addition to selecting new cultivars based on new colors or a longer shelf life, breeders and growers also choose new cultivars based on production benefits such as varieties that require less greenhouse heat, said Kennedy. In addition to the annual fall trials, which are conducted at universities, growers will do their own in-house trials to determine what does well in their region, he added.

Because some varieties do better in warmer areas of the country and others fare better in cooler climates, every new variety from the trials may not be available in every region. But, no matter where you live, some of these new varieties as well as your old favorites will be available in groceries, box stores, nurseries and other locations. They’ll start showing up no later than right after Halloween in most markets. Depending on where you live, that’s about the time tomatoes, squash and beans will be finishing up and you’ll be turning your attention to the holiday season.

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