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On point: University of Minnesota-Crookston students learn finicky poinsettias take some finesse

CROOKSTON — If they were not quite sure by August they wanted a career in horticulture, four students at the University of Minnesota-Crookston certainly know by now.

Jacoby McConkey, Matthew Patrick, Caleb Rempel and Jace Rau just spent an entire semester, or a little more than three months, giving daily attention to 700-some poinsettias in the campus greenhouse.

In the plant world, these festive staples of the holiday season rank pretty high on the finicky scale. Their beauty regimen requires precisely timed pinching, propagation prodding and the application of things with very long names — such as paclobutrazol and chlormequat. Those are the chemicals that keep them from getting too lanky.

"It does require a lot more attention than one would think," said Patrick, a senior from Farmington, Minn. "Some plants you can just water, but poinsettias are very particular. They need very special lighting and temperature in order to bloom."

And by "very particular," he means, at most, 12 hours and 19 minutes of daylight, production horticulture instructor Rick Abrahamson explains.

"You wouldn't think that would be a big deal, but even a street light or somebody driving by in a car can make a difference and mess the plant up," Abrahamson said.

In order to control the light from Oct. 1 to Thanksgiving, the students had to maneuver large blackout cloths to block all light from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., give or take a few minutes.

"There was a lot of communication," Patrick said. "We had a little chat group to coordinate who was covering when."

As the students prepared the plants for sale last week in the Sargeant Student Center, they chuckled as they admitted to oversleeping once or twice.

Asked if the needy plants had become their personal "Little Shop of Horrors," they laughed again before Abrahamson cut them off with a curt and comical reminder: "You haven't had the final yet."

The class, part of a four-year horticulture degree, began in late August with 3- to 4-inch cuttings in seven varieties: Freedom Early White, Premier Jingle Bells (speckled), two reds, Luv U Hot Pink and Soft Pink, and Prestige Maroon.

Abrahamson explained that poinsettias get their vibrant and various colors from "bracts," or modified leaves. The actual flowers, which initiate growth with that magical amount of darkness, have no petals. It's the bracts, drained of chlorophyll, that step in to attract the pollinators, he said.

Understanding how it all works is a fine science, and Abrahamson says the students learn a lot from the hands-on experience.

"It is a lot of work for the students, and both Theresa and I know that," Abrahamson said. "We give the students as much responsibility as we can, and we expect them to step up to the plate."

Theresa Helgeson is the lab services coordinator. She's also the one who likes to add the little spritz of sparkle dust to some of the plants when it comes time to sell them.

She and other students were busy Wednesday carefully transporting the plants from the greenhouse to the student center, where they became the building blocks for a 12-foot poinsettia tree. Students, staff and the public were able to purchase them for $5 to $15. Proceeds support next year's program.

A little history

Abrahamson shared a few fun facts about the plant that has come to be so popular during the holidays:

• Poinsettias are native to Central America, where they grow as a deciduous shrub up to 15 feet tall.

• They were cultivated by the Aztecs, who gave them the name Cuetlaxochitl.

• The plants were a symbol of purity.

• The Aztecs used the reddish-purple dye in textiles and cosmetics.

• Franciscan priests who settled in Central America in the 17th century used the plants during their nativity processions.

• Joel Robert Poinsett, a botanist and first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to the U.S. in 1825.

• Poinsett played a big role in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, too. According to Smithsonian.com, Poinsett was a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, first created in 1840 to promote the study of natural history, physical sciences and other fields. It's believed the organization was founded with the intention to secure the James Smithson bequest to establish an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge.") It was a hot debate on how to best achieve Smithson's request, and Poinsett is credited with being the first to argue it should be spent for a national museum.

• The plant became known as the poinsettia in 1936.

• In 1902, the Albert Ecke family began producing poinsettias in California for local flower markets. At its peak, the family had 90 percent of the American market.

• Dec. 12, the date Poinsett died, is National Poinsettia Day.

Tips at home

Abrahamson says poinsettias can be "overwintered," but it does take some extra care. He offers these tips for keeping your plant looking beautiful at least through the holidays:

• Water the plant when first half-inch of soil is dry. Remove foil covering and allow plant to thoroughly drain in the sink.

• Keep away from drafts and heating vents.

• The plants favor bright, indirect sunlight.

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