ALBANY, Ore. — June doesn’t exactly call to mind snow and sleigh bells, but here at Peoria Gardens, nursery growers are gearing up for the holidays. Thursday, growers planted poinsettias — the most popular houseplant in the U.S. around Christmas — which need to be planted six months in advance.
Because of COVID-19, poinsettia growers say they are facing an uncertain market this year. Some nurseries are maintaining production levels, many are downsizing and others aren’t growing poinsettias at all.
In 2019, according to USDA data, the nation’s poinsettia industry was valued at more than $149 million.
“We’re downsizing our crop this year anticipating a decrease in demand. But it’s all kind of a gamble,” said Zac Burke-Wolfe, sales manager at Peoria Gardens.
The nursery, said Burke-Wolfe, will grow 17,000 poinsettias in 2020 compared to 25,000 in 2019, a 32% decrease.
Burke-Wolfe said in previous recessions, poinsettia sales have held relatively strong. What makes this crisis unique is that church and school events, fundraisers and other gatherings may be limited or canceled in December because of COVID-19, and events, especially fundraisers, make up at least one-third of the nursery’s poinsettia sales.
Across the West — especially in California, the nation’s poinsettia-growing heartland — growers are making tough decisions.
Bill Eisley, a grower at Eisley Nursery in Auburn, Calif., said COVID-19 was nowhere on his radar when he ordered poinsettia cuttings in January, so he will be planting the same number as usual and hoping for more normalcy by December.
Erin McCarthy, vice president of sales at Vista, Calif.-based Altman Plants, sells poinsettias primarily to grocery and big retail stores, where she forecasts “strong sales” this year.
In contrast, Duarte Nursery in Hughson, Calif., in the Central Valley, has announced on its website it will sit out the 2020 poinsettia season. A spokeswoman told the Capital Press Jim and Anita Duarte, the nursery’s co-founders, are self-quarantining at home to protect their health.
Although Burke-Wolfe of Peoria Gardens said the drop in event sales will hurt, a recent poll the nursery conducted showed many of its customers are still committed to buying poinsettias.
“It’s a special plant people want around to brighten things up,” said Burke-Wolfe. “You know, it’s actually a bizarre plant though, an oddity for sure.”
Poinsettias, he explained, were originally from Central America, where they are a perennial woody shrub that grows 10 to 15 feet tall.
The version mainly grown in the U.S., he said, has to be grown in heated greenhouses with heavy humidity. Even mature plants must be kept in warm temperatures to thrive.
According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, the Aztecs of Mexico highly valued poinsettias and called them “cuetlaxochitl.” Mexicans later called the poinsettia “flor de nochebuena,” or Christmas Eve flower, because it turns red just before the holiday.
But the “flower,” horticulturists say, is just the yellow center. The velvety red “petals” are actually modified leaves, called bracts.
Historical records show Joel Roberts Poinsett, an early 1800s physician, amateur botanist and first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, introduced the poinsettia to the U.S.
Ecke Ranch in Southern California first promoted them as Christmas houseplants in the 1920s.
“Poinsettias have an interesting story,” said Burke-Wolfe. “We’ll see what happens in 2020.”