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Sarah Parker tending to a poinsettia crop.

UMC student Sarah Parker tending to the poinsettia crop her class is growing. The plants will go on sale December 10 at the greenhouses on the Crookston campus.

Growing poinsettias at UMC

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, November 2004

Andy Clauson is on a mission. The U student wants to grow the best, most expensive poinsettia in Crookston. Thus far, his Christmas plant is knee-high and spans the circumference of a circle you can make with your arms stretched out in front of you.

Clauson is one of six students in Hort 3033, the fall commercial floriculture crops class at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. The class, which has been around since 1966, teaches students to grow plants for a specific date. And trying to make a poinsettia grow faster and bigger is just one example of the experiments that take place in this class.

"We love it when the students [experiment] because they learn so much more," says instructor Sue Jacobson.

Poinsettia facts

* Poinsettias are native to Mexico; the Aztecs called it "Cuetlayochitl."

* Joel Poinsett introduced poinsettias to the United States in 1825.

* The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows more than 80 percent of poinsettias in the United States for the wholesale market.

* Poinsettias are not poisonous, and there are more than 100 varieties available.

* Poinsettias represent more than 85 percent of the potted plant sales during the holiday season.

Source: University of Illinois Extension

The Horticulture Department orders about 700 poinsettia cuttings every fall for the students to pot during their first week of class. From then on, it's their crop, says Jacobson. The students have to make all the decisions about insecticides, fungicides, fertilizer, and environmental control to ensure that their crop is ready for Christmas shoppers in early December. No easy feat, says Jacobson, considering that "poinsettias naturally bloom around Thanksgiving, or even a little bit earlier, according to our normal day lengths."

To ensure that their 400 pots of poinsettias (with one to three cuttings in them) reach their peak in December, the students must carefully monitor shade and light on their crop for a certain number of weeks. Right now, they are covering the plants with a black cloth at 4:00 p.m. and then uncovering them again at 8:00 a.m.

"That's what greenhouse growing is all about--it's forcing plants," says Jacobson. "And forcing is defined as causing the plant to bloom or grow on your schedule rather than the plant's schedule."

Although the students have class time (two one-hour lecture periods and two two-hour lab periods a week) in which to care for their plants, general maintenance also happens a lot on their own time and over the weekends. Additionally, they keep detailed journals and make field trips to commercial greenhouses.

"The most surprising thing that I am learning from this class is how much work goes into producing a beautiful crop of poinsettias," says Sarah Parker, a horticulture senior. "We are responsible for a lot of things, but this means it will be more rewarding at the end when we have a finished crop that we grew on our own. Sue only intervenes if what we decide will be very detrimental to the crop. This [hands-off approach to teaching] allows us to make mistakes and then to learn how to correct those mistakes."

The class will sell their crop on Friday, December 10, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the University of Minnesota, Crookston, greenhouse. The prices will range from $5 to $17--or $100 if Andy Clauson has his way. Proceeds will go to the Horticulture Club and the Horticulture Department to buy next year's plants.

To learn more about the horticulture program on the Crookston campus, see www.crk.umn.edu/academics/hort.

For some poinsettia care tips from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, see Info-U.

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