Picking the plant with the brightest red color isn't necessarily the best choice when selecting a poinsettia plant for the holidays.
"You want to select a plant that hasn't turned completely red if you want it to look vibrant throughout the holidays," said Ron Oetting, a University of Georgia entomologist. "You also want to pick a plant that hasn't flowered yet."
The bracts of a poinsettia are often mistaken for the flower. "The flowers are not the color," Oetting said. "The flowers are more insignificant and are found in the center of the plant." He said a good selection would be a plant with six to seven bracts (flowers).
"Search for a plant with dark green foliage and a stiff stem," he said. "A good-sized, full plant with five or more branches should be an excellent selection."
Check the base of the plant, because sometimes a pot will actually contain two plants.
Growing poinsettias is a $7 million industry in Georgia. But it's hard for growers to make a profit on the plants, Oetting said.
"There's an overproduction and you have a lot of people who are growing low-quality plants," he said. "They're flooding the department stores with these plants at low prices. Consumers seem to think if it's got a little red on it, it's a good plant."
For this reason, Oetting said, the economics of growing poinsettias is poor. "Growers don't get much more for poinsettia plants today than they did 10 or 20 years ago," he said.
Oetting also advises consumers to make sure they aren't bringing home hitchhikers with their new holiday plant.
"Silverleaf whiteflies have been major pests of poinsettias since the late 1980s," he said. "They inhabit the underside of the leaves and suck the juices and sap from the plant."
Evidence of whiteflies is obvious, he said. When they excrete the plant's juices, they drop a "honeydew" substance onto the leaves below.
"If the plant has sticky leaves and you see dots on the undersides of the leaves, don't buy it," he said. The scale-looking "dots," he said, are whitefly nymphs.
The adult whiteflies look like white flies, giving them the name. "When you shake the plant," Oetting said, "it looks like smoke going up when the whiteflies fly out."
Conducting research at the Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, Oetting works closely with the green industry to find solutions to problems greenhouse growers face.
He is studying the effects of pesticides, soaps, oils, plant derivatives, insect growth regulators, biological control and microbial control in the fight against whiteflies.
"Unfortunately, chemical management with pesticides is still the most effective means of fighting whiteflies," he said.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)