GLENWOOD -- Just a few weeks before Christmas, Larry Windham was surrounded by colorful plants known as Carousel, Ice Punch, Shimmer Surprise and Jingle Bells.
Windham, who owns Windham Greenhouses with his wife, Janie, was in the middle of shipping out this year’s crop of poinsettias, a signature Christmas plant.
When Windham began the Wheeler County business in 1979, he planted 200 to 300 red poinsettias but soon began adding other colors. About 75 percent of his poinsettias are red, followed by white and an assortment of other shades.
“We grow about 12,000 (poinsettias) now,” he said.
Despite a downturn in the industry over the past decade, Georgia produces about half a million poinsettias annually, according to a 2012 Georgia Department of Agriculture report.
As a wholesaler grower and plant broker, Windham Greenhouses grows all kinds of bedding and potted plants year round and has 20 greenhouses with about an acre under cover. Most of Windham’s customers are florists in the midstate and southeast Georgia.
Poinsettias are critical to his business this time of year, because they create “a cash flow you need going into spring,” he said.
“We’ve always had poinsettias, but what has created the increase in demand is churches,” who use them as Christmas decorations. “Sometimes a church will have 100 poinsettias.”
Paul Thomas, a professor of floriculture at the University of Georgia, said that when he was hired by the school 25 years ago, the staff took him to Windham’s operation.
“He does such a good job, he was used as a benchmark,” said Thomas, who also is a state extension specialist in floriculture -- the production and growing of flowers.
“He’s a very, very good grower,” Thomas said of Windham. “He’s probably the best in the state. ... He always manages to pull it off, but Larry Windham does worry about his poinsettia crop and has to work very hard to make sure it’s as good as it is.”
Jon Mayer, owner of Lawrence Mayer Florist in downtown Macon, has been one of Windham’s customers more than five years.
“(Poinsettias) are still one of the staples of Christmas ... They are still the No. 1 Christmas plant,” Mayer said. “Larry’s poinsettias are fantastic, and he’s a fine poinsettia grower, but there is a lot of junk on the market, and it’s hurting him and me and everybody else who wants to sell a high-quality poinsettia and an appropriately priced poinsettia.”
Mayer said when mass marketers began selling poinsettias that aren’t up to par, it devalued the product.
“People don’t realize it’s a totally different product, even though it’s a poinsettia,” he said.
Greenhouse industry rises, then declines
It wasn’t until the 1970s when poinsettias, which originally grew like trees with a single branch in Mexico, became popular in this country as potted plants, Thomas said. That’s when poinsettias were developed to become thicker with more branches and showcase more colors.
“So in the 1970s, we began seeing greenhouses like Windham’s,” Thomas said. “They realized they could turn poinsettias into a florist crop. ... It changed everything. It was a godsend for the greenhouse industry.”
Prior to that, wintertime was a lean time of the year for greenhouses.
“They had used up their spring money, they had to buy seeds for the next spring, they have to pay their employees,” Thomas said. “So come November, they were pretty much out of money. Well, poinsettias changed that, and it made it a little bit easier for commercial greenhouses to stay in business.”
During the past 15 years, poinsettia growers have increased the colors, sizes and shapes to more than 70 variations, he said. During the 1970s and ‘80s, poinsettias became a major crop in Georgia for the greenhouse industry.
“By the time we reached 2004, we had almost 1,000 greenhouse businesses in the state of Georgia, and at least half of those were selling poinsettias,” Thomas said.
Then drought came to Georgia in the 2000s, and people stopped buying outdoor plants. Production dropped significantly, and “quite a few people went out of business,” he said.
The industry was hit again with the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008, and even more greenhouses went out of business.
“So this industry has taken a hit,” Thomas said. “Literally, 75 percent of the greenhouses that used to be in existence in 2006 are gone, and the same number of garden centers are gone.
“The Larry Windhams of the world are the rare few that survived in Georgia that are still big enough and able to grow a big poinsettia crop. ... There are only four or five left that grow poinsettias in any large numbers. We have lots of greenhouses, but they grow primarily bedding plants or vegetables.”
Growing poinsettias takes finesse
The four-month process to grow poinsettias begins in July when Windham buys the rooted cuttings.
Workers put the plants in pots where they remain until sold, Windham said. They water and fertilize the plants by hand at first, and after two or three weeks remove the tops to force the plants to grow multiple stems.
After about six weeks, workers spread out the plants and add drip tubes. Beginning at the fall equinox in September -- where there is an even number of hours of daylight and dark -- the plants “can’t have any nighttime lights on” because that’s when the magic happens. The leaves, also referred to as the flowers, begin to turn various shades of red, white, pink or variations of all three.
“It only takes three or four weeks to initiate the flowers,” Windham said. “By the end of October, you start seeing color. We start shipping the week of Thanksgiving.”
The temperature of the greenhouses must be kept at least 62 to 65 degrees at night and about 75 to 85 degrees during the day, he said.
“I get upset if things are not up to my standard,” Windham said. “I grow them for four months, and if I see them handled roughly, that’s what bugs me the most.”
It’s a lot harder to grow poinsettias than it may seem, Thomas said.
“I teach an entire class on poinsettia production because it is the most difficult crop to produce in ornamental horticulture,” he said. “My students age many years in that semester.”
Dozens of diseases can wipe out a crop, he said. Also the plants are sensitive to weather and light issues. If the greenhouse is too warm and humid, it will cause major issues like thin and leggy stems.
“The plant can literally self-destruct,” Thomas said. “Then on top of everything else ... they have to have a certain amount of long nights before they will develop the ... color, or they will still be green at Christmas. ...
“When you get a poinsettia from the store, it’s probably had more love and attention, care and worry than any other plant you’ve ever bought.”
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.
How to choose, care for poinsettias
When buying poinsettias, look for:
Large colorful leaves.
Dark green foliage.
A compact plant that doesn’t look leggy.
On the way home, cover it with plastic, newspaper or a bag, and do not put it in an unheated trunk.
When you get home:
Put it in bright, indirect light with cool conditions and medium to high humidity.
Keep away from windows, doors and drafts where the plant may get gusts of cold air.
Keep away from heating vents and fireplaces.
Check daily and water whenever the soil is dry. Do not let it wilt, but don’t water if the soil is wet.
Water with room-temperature water thoroughly until the water drains out, and then empty the catch tray.
Make a hole in foil-wrapped pots to allow water to drain into a catch tray.
Source: The University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service