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Christmas in July: poinsettias take root

Roger Esbenshade, president of Esbenshade's Greenhouses Inc., with a poinsettia cutting and the pot it will grow in.
Roger Esbenshade, president of Esbenshade’s Greenhouses Inc.,
with a poinsettia cutting and the pot it will grow in.

 

Retailers and consumers might count down the number of shopping days left until the holidays. At Esbenshade’s Greenhouses Inc. in Lancaster County, it’s a calendar of growing days.

One of the 100 biggest greenhouse operations in the United States, family-owned Esbenshade’s is a significant grower of poinsettias. Royer’s Flowers & Gifts is one of Esbenshade’s biggest poinsettia customers, to the tune of 30,000 plants each year.

In order for Royer’s to have poinsettias to sell starting around Thanksgiving, Esbenshade’s has to start growing the traditional Christmas plants during the summer.

In fact, poinsettias account for 75 percent of Esbenshade’s summer workload and 15 to 20 percent of the company’s annual sales. Esbenshade’s sells poinsettias to customers throughout Pennsylvania and into surrounding states and sometimes as far away as Boston.

This helps to explain why Roger Esbenshade, the company’s president, has a young poinsettia spilled out on a desk in his air-conditioned office in mid-July, when the outside temperature is approaching 90 degrees.

He has been looking at the plant’s roots under a microscope, “to make sure nothing funny is going on.” Besides proper root development, he tests for levels of pH and fertilizer in the “growing medium,” a mixture of composted bark, peat and the mineral perlite, which appears as tiny white rocks.

“If you wait until the plant itself starts to show the problem, then it’s usually much wider spread and much more difficult to make a correction,” Esbenshade said.

His parents – Lamar and Nancy – founded the company in 1960. Today, Esbenshade and brothers Fred, Scott and Terry own and operate the wholesale business from a complex of buildings on Route 322 just north of Lititz. A sister (there are seven siblings in all) works part-time for the company.

Every week throughout most of the summer, Esbenshade’s receives poinsettia cuttings from three different suppliers. These cuttings are two and one-half inch stems that will become the hundreds of thousands of poinsettias that Esbenshade’s will nurture in its greenhouses.

The cuttings have no roots; those will come in short order but only after Esbenshade’s workers stick them into the bark-peat-perlite mixture in pots. (Esbenshade’s also grows starter plants for other growers; these roots develop in a foam cube). The plants will stay in these pots right up until they are delivered to Royer’s.

The pots are in Esbenshade’s “Gilbert” greenhouse, which is named in memory of an employee who died. They are lined up, row upon row, on tables and under automated misters.

A pinch to unleash potential

A cutting by itself is fragile: left in the sun for 20 minutes, Esbenshade said, it will die. Regular misting is necessary for the cuttings to sprout roots. A computer considers plant and air temperature, humidity, light intensity to determine each burst of mist for each table.

It takes four weeks for the plant roots to grow fully. At that point, Esbenshade’s “pinches” – snapping off the tip – the cutting to force lateral branch growth. Everywhere there is a leaf is the potential to grow a new stem. This potential is unleashed by the pinching.

“There’s a hormonal change in that plant that stimulates that growth,” Esbenshade said.

At up to 100 degrees, poinsettias will grow faster the higher the temperature. Above 100 degrees, growth tapers.

Red poinsettias are the traditional variety and account for 70 percent of the plants the company grows, although they come in many varieties and sizes. When asked what his favorite variety is, Esbenshade at first quipped:

“By December 25th, my personal favorite is an empty greenhouse.”

Really it’s the “marble star,” whose leaves (or bracts) feature a “bold pink center” and white edges, Esbenshade said.

Esbenshade’s follows strict growing schedules to ensure that it produces the highest-quality plants it can for Royer’s, which holds Esbenshade’s to exacting standards. What’s more, Royer’s is based just 15 miles away in Lebanon, which makes it easy for co-owners Mike Royer or Tom Royer to get a first-hand look at the crop.

Variety (some grow faster than others) and hoped-for size determine the growing schedule.

“If we want a plant that’s 30 inches tall, then we have to start that in June,” Esbenshade said. “If we want one that’s 8 inches tall, that doesn’t get started until August.”

It’s possible to force faster growth, but then the plant lacks the stem strength and big bracts that distinguish the Esbenshade’s plants from, say, the poinsettias found at big-box retailers.

“It has to look different,” Esbenshade said of his company’s poinsettia crop. “The average consumer has to recognize that it’s something substantially different. We don’t try to explain to them that it’s different, we grow something that they recognize is different.”

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