UI students spend semester working with poinsettias

URBANA – University of Illinois students who grew 60 different kinds of poinsettias in class this semester say the experience helped them pick favorites.

They invite area residents to visit the Plant Science Laboratory at 1201 S. Dorner Drive, U, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday to vote for favorites among the burgundy, pink, red, orange, white, speckled, curled and painted cultivars.

Junior Dan Klopfenstein of Downs said he likes a new variety on the market, Winterose.

"See how the leaves curve in," he said of the compact plant with delicate curly pink and white leaves.

Klopfenstein rejected a sprawling but spectacular plant next to it, a plant with some mainly red leaves and some mainly white ones.

"It's not marketable," he said. "It's a sport, and it's not genetically stable."

He said students in Dan Warnock's greenhouse management class spent the semester working on the poinsettia project. They divided into four groups and divided up 60 different cultivars sent to the UI by growers who supply stock to commercial greenhouses.

"We work with Kansas State and Tennessee State universities growing the same cultivars with the same cultural practices to see how they respond to different climates," Warnock said.

Warnock said most of the cultivars the students grow are on the market or close to it, but some are experimental. At the open house, he collects public opinions about the plants so he can send them back to the growers who provided the seed stock free.

The plant laboratory is also holding an open house at the same times so the conservatory, orchid collections and other plant collections will also be on display.

Klopfenstein said students did all the work, irrigating the plants, which number more than 300, trouble shooting and even conducting some experiments.

"We need two greenhouses, and one was going to be grown with commercial chemicals and one with biological controls," he said. "We couldn't get the plants in the biological greenhouse up and we had a terrible whitefly problem in there. "

Mike Butler, a Tolono resident, said students used special techniques to get the poinsettias to flower at the right time. He said when school started, they turned lights on for several hours during the nights to fool the plants into thinking the nights were very short. When nights got longer, they discontinued the lamp activity, he said.

"They need 12 hours of darkness to start flowering," Butler said. "Some start changing color after six weeks and some after seven or eight weeks. Some growers put black cloth over them."

Warnock said the students' 60 cultivars are only about half the varieties available commercially.

"Growers are looking for anything that's easy to produce, anything to reduce their inputs," he said. "They want anything that grows faster, larger and has impact. Florists need showiness. And the box companies like Wal-Mart and Lowe's want anything that ships well and fits on shelves. Breeders are trying to satisfy all those needs."

The UI students don't sell their poinsettias to the public. Warnock said he doesn't want to complete with the industry that supports his program, but there's plenty of demand on campus for poinsettias for dinner decorations and other events. And Warnock's students will take their favorite plants home with them for the holidays.

Klopfenstein said the poinsettia project taught him a lot about how greenhouses work.

"My dream is to teach agriculture at a high school, I will teach horticulture, and my second dream is to have a greenhouse," he said.

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