LUBBOCK — They appear right around Thanksgiving or shortly thereafter — in almost every store you visit during those holiday shopping excursions. You can choose from red, pink, white or a variety with multi-colored leaves called “Jingle Bells.”
They are poinsettias, of course, an ornamental houseplant which many Americans use as part of their seasonal holiday home decor.
Most people probably dont give much thought to where poinsettias come from. And most probably wouldnt think of the Texas South Plains if you were to ask. But poinsettias are a South Plains crop, too — just like cotton, cattle, corn and milo.
“We started growing poinsettias here in Lubbock back in 1964,” said Warren Hunt, 62, production manager for Caprock Growers Inc. “They are strictly a seasonal crop for us. Our primary focus is producing a variety of annual bedding plants, peppers, tomatoes and ground covers, but we also are branching out into perennials and native plants.”
Hunt and partner Bob Schmidt werent too long out of Texas Techs horticulture program when they decided to start their own South Plains horticulture enterprise 1960. Their business partnership flourished for many years. Then, in 1994, they sold their enterprise to Lubbock County Flower Growers, a firm owned by Lee Goodman Investments in Fort Worth.
Caprock Growers recently doubled its greenhouse production space to 170,000 square feet by building a new greenhouse just south of Lubbock. That expansion meant broadening both their product base and their marketing area. Even so, new crops probably wont displace seasonal favorites like poinsettias, Hunt said.
“We want to have poinsettias ready for market from Thanksgiving week through Christmas. We produce three types of the Freedom variety (red, pink, white) and a variety called Jingle Bells, which has red and pink mottled leaves,” Hunt said. “Were also trying a new type of the Freedom variety called bright red. Poinsettias are wonderful houseplants. They will last through Valentines Day if cared for properly.”
Like other growers, Caprock starts its poinsettia crop by purchasing cuttings taken from stock-parent plants. The cuttings are set out in different size pots (to produce different size holiday plants) from mid-July through early August.
“Its best to start with multi-branched cuttings. We keep the greenhouse temperature between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and no lower than 70 degrees at night when the plants are young,” Hunt said. “As they mature, we can let the night temperature drop as low as 60 to 64 degrees. But poinsettias are a cold-sensitive, subtropical plant. So, we never let the night temperature fall below 58 degrees to lessen the risk of disease.
“We pot our cuttings in artificial soil, or dirtless dirt as I like to call it. We feed the plants a basic liquid fertilizer enriched with trace minerals through a drip irrigation system. We keep the pH of this solution between 6 and 6.5 by adding sulfuric acid, and we balance the formulation of this solution to provide about 300 parts per million (ppm) of nitrate nitrogen.”
By early September, Caprocks poinsettias are large enough to be pinched back. September pinching encourages the growth of three to five new, evenly-spaced branches by October. Keeping the greenhouse humidity relatively high also encourages branching, the horticulturist said.
“With Monet and other early-blooming varieties, we also have to manipulate the plants response to photoperiod (day length) to make them bloom. We cover the plants with black cloth from mid-September to mid-October, to give them just the right amount of uninterrupted darkness,” he said. “And all during the production cycle, we have to keep our eyes open for whiteflies and disease.
“Buying clean stock and maintaining the right growing environment is the key to disease prevention. Our biggest insect threat is the whitefly. A few whiteflies wont hurt a plant, but a serious infestation can cause defoliation. Their presence can put a shipment or an entire crop into quarantine because of the threat they pose to other plants.”
Caprock Growers banks on the knowledge of Texas A&M University horticulturists to help control disease and insects and on other matters of plant health.
“Drs. Larry Barnes, Bart Drees and Steve George have been a great help in controlling pests,” Hunt said. “Were quite lucky to have Texas A&Ms Research and Extension Center at Lubbock just down the road from our main facility.
“Dr. Roland Roberts, Extension horticulturist, consults with us quite a bit on vegetable production and Dr. Harold Kaufman, Extension plant pathologist, helps us with disease diagnoses and getting our soil and water tested at Texas A&M laboratories. I also make a point to attend the Texas Greenhouse Growers Conference at College Station every year and horticulture conferences in other states. Thats a good way to stay in touch with your peers and learn about new production and marketing methods.”
When marketing time arrives, Caprock employees put a protective paper sleeve around each plant and pack several plants into each shipping box. The boxed plants are shipped by truck to several retail outlets within a 200-mile radius of Lubbock. A select few also find their way into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and San Antonio.
“We have to remain flexible to meet the fluctuating demand of seasonal crops like poinsettias. We are constantly evaluating demand and balancing our production to meet market needs,” Hunt said. “In this business, good records are an essential cultivation, production and marketing tool.”
Texas growers will market more than $9 million worth of poinsettias from Thanksgiving through Christmas this year.
Consumers who are particular shoppers and want to “buy Texas” at the same time should ask retailers where their poinsettias come from. South Plains poinsettias wont be wearing a belt and boots, of course, but they will be just as colorful as a West Texas sunset.
Texans can learn more about the care, feeding and history of holiday poinsettias at Texas A&M Universitys horticulture website (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu). This bank of knowledge on the web also provides a host of information about other plants, too.