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UConn horticulturalist develops new variety of poinsettia

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - December 10, 2007

The Floriculture Greenhouse is colorful at this time of year: flame red, rose pink, cream, and burgundy poinsettias pack the benches as far as the eye can see.

Tucked in among them is a golden gem.

The plant, named Cinnamon Stick, is Bob Shabot’s baby, and he has been nurturing it since its infancy. Its color and shape make it unique among poinsettias.

After five years of careful propagation and small-scale testing, the plant is now undergoing trials in Germany and Colorado.

Shabot, a horticulturist in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is working with UConn’s Center for Science and Technology Commercialization and may apply for a patent on it soon.

The poinsettia, an herbaceous perennial native to Mexico, was introduced to the United States in the 1800s. It is named after Joel R. Poinsett, the first U. S. ambassador to Mexico.

The winter-flowering plant has since become inextricably linked with the holiday season.

Poinsettias have undergone extensive breeding and selection to produce the hundreds of cultivars that exist today.

“Everybody wants something new,” says Shabot. “Every year, there’s a subtle change.”

UConn has been growing poinsettias for many years for teaching and research and for sale through the Floriculture Greenhouse. In the past 10 years, the University has also served as a trial site for new varieties.

Tips for maintaining your poinsettias

The main thing to have them last in the home is cooler temperatures,” says UConn horticulturist Bob Shabot.

“So if you turn the heat down to conserve energy, that may be good for your poinsettia too. They need moderate light, and usually last longest with a minimum amount of water.”

The plants should be allowed to almost dry out before watering – the pot should feel light. The soil should then be saturated with water – the pot will feel heavy afterward.

Whatever the light conditions in your home, Shabot adds, display the plant wherever it works best with your decor, but when you leave the house for the day, place it by a window to absorb extra light.

Suppliers – there are about half a dozen in the U.S. – send new cultivars free of charge to various trial locations around the country, where they are evaluated for their response to regional growth conditions.

The trials give retail and wholesale growers in the area an opportunity to look at the plants and decide on their options, says Richard McAvoy, a professor of plant science who oversees the trials.

“Poinsettias are an important crop in floriculture,” he says.

“As an extension specialist, I deal with commercial growers. They’re always interested in new plant material, but don’t always have space to grow different cultivars side by side and evaluate them. We do the trials as a service.”

Trial plants are grown for a season and then mostly offered to local customers through the greenhouse. In addition to finding out the plant’s hardiness, the suppliers and the growers are interested in how consumers respond to different colors and shapes.

This year, the UConn greenhouse is growing more than 1,000 plants of about 90 different varieties.

Horticulturalist Robert Shabot examines the unusual vase-shaped flower on a new poinsettia cultivar known as Cinnamon Stick.
Horticulturalist Robert Shabot examines the unusual vase-shaped flower on a new poinsettia cultivar known as Cinnamon Stick.
Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the suppliers have available,” Shabot says.

It was five years ago that Shabot first noticed something different about two branches of a particular specimen, Cinnamon Star, a variety originated by Fischer USA and being grown at UConn for teaching purposes.

The parent plant is a creamy golden color, with horizontal bracts.

What caught Shabot’s eye was not only the color – a deeper gold, almost russet – but also the shape: Cinnamon Stick has bracts that point upward, giving the flower a vase-like shape.

“That was an attention-getter,” Shabot says.

He says this type of mutation in plants – known as a sport – occurs naturally.

“Sports are very common,” says Shabot, who has worked as a horticulturalist for nearly 40 years, “but they are rarely of any consequence. Cinnamon Stick was a once-in-a-lifetime find.

“The vast majority of commercially viable cultivars are the result of breeding work,” he adds. “The chances of finding a commercially acceptable cultivar as a sport are one in a million.”

Once a promising sport is found, it is propagated vegetatively to accumulate a block of genetically identical plant material that can be studied.

Shabot says one of the primary concerns in ascertaining whether the new plant could ultimately be commercially viable is whether the mutation will maintain its characteristics consistently.

Each year for the past several years, Shabot has grown 20 to 30 plants of the new cultivar.

So far it has performed well, and has drawn favorable attention from local growers, as well as from individuals who’ve been asked to try it out at home.

For now, Cinnamon Stick mostly remains in the greenhouse, where Shabot can continue to observe and, as he describes it, “tinker” with it.

Come Christmas, most of the other poinsettia plants will be sold, leaving the greenhouse growing tables bare.

But Shabot is already planning for next year’s holiday season.

“Christmas begins in January,” he says.

Before the end of January, he must place the University’s order for the poinsettia cuttings that will arrive in August.

Not only that, the Easter lilies have just been planted.

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