Floriculture researchers test pink poinsettias

Flowers would be marketed for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

The late Kay Yow, N.C. State University women’s basketball coach who died in 2009, forever linked N.C. State with breast cancer awareness through her annual Hoops for Hope women’s basketball game. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, N.C. State’s floriculture program has unveiled a new symbol of the fight against breast cancer – pink poinsettias.

N.C. State’s floriculture program, based in the Horticultural Science Department, is the first to test pink poinsettia varieties that the industry would like to market for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The varieties – yet unnamed – were developed by crossing traditional Christmas red poinsettias and a white flower that is a close relative.

Researchers examine poinsettias in green house
John Dole and Ingram McCall examine pink poinsettias they are testing for Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Not far from campus, rows of pink poinsettias are on display in a greenhouse where Dr. John Dole, horticulture professor, and horticulture technician Igram McCall have tried different strategies for getting the pink poinsettias ready for an October release.  Similar new varieties were previously tried for Christmas, but plant breeders found that the pink flowers did not sell well for that holiday.

Pink poinsettias
The pink poinsettias are a cross between a red poinsettia and a white flower that is closely related.

Dole said there are challenges with getting poinsettias into full color in October. Like poinsettias cultivated for Christmas, the pink hybrid poinsettias must receive limited exposure to daylight in order to develop the bright, pink flowers. Beginning in mid-August, the plants in the greenhouse are “black clothed” to block light for 15 hours each day, giving them nine hours of light. The problem with black clothing the plants so early is that the heat of the summer greenhouse can actually prevent the poinsettias from forming flowers.

Dole and McCall tried black clothing the plants for as little as four weeks and up to six weeks.  The optimal time period for restricting daylight seems to be six weeks, Dole said. Of three varieties tested, one with darker center petals and lighter petals on the outside has performed especially well.

Poinsettias perform well in the home, lasting several months indoors with proper sunlight and water, so a poinsettia purchased in October could well last through Christmas.

The poinsettia varieties Dole has tested are not yet available to the public, though they are available to North Carolina growers. And since the varieties have not been named, perhaps one could be named the Kay Yow Poinsettia in memory of the beloved Wolfpack coach who lost her own fight against breast cancer. Dole says he’ll make that suggestion.

–Written by Natalie Hampton

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