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Providing the Gift of Water for Poinsettias and Other Ornamental Crops

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Conservation
Dec 12, 2014
How much do you know about this iconic plant that brightens lots of homes this time of year?
How much do you know about this iconic plant that brightens lots of homes this time of year?

Happy Poinsettia Day!

Of the countless iconic holiday season images in American homes, perhaps the most popular and colorful of them started off as a humble bush from our neighbors to the south.

The poinsettia was introduced to this country in the late 1820s by Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, but only started on the path to holiday season superstardom in the early 1900s.  By 2013, poinsettias accounted for 23 percent of sales for flowering potted plants – to the tune of $146 million.

Floriculture, the aspect of horticulture than relates to ornamental crops, ranks fifth in U.S. agriculture.  Production of these crops – which includes cut flowers, both potted and landscape plants, and green roofs – occurs in open fields, nurseries, greenhouses, and high tunnels.

The high demand of these crops for irrigation water is a major challenge for growers, with household use and traditional agriculture as the major competitors for water.  This competition is especially severe when coupled with drought.  Growers must have effective and efficient ways to both provide the quality and quantity of water they need to ensure the health of their plants and to limit the flow of nutrients and chemicals through runoff into watersheds.

That’s where USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) comes in.  NIFA has provided funding for several floriculture research projects that address a variety of irrigation concerns.  One example is a $2.7 million project in which researchers from Virginia Tech have developed protocols to manage pathogens in reclaimed water sources.  As of August 2014, researchers have categorized nine new species of Phytophthora – a primary cause of plant root and crown rot – from nursery irrigation systems in Virginia and Mississippi.

Right outside of our nation’s capital, University of Maryland researchers are using a NIFA-administered grant of more than $5.1 million to develop a wireless sensor network capable of supporting the intensive production system requirements of field nurseries, container nurseries, greenhouse operations, and green roof systems.  After only three years, the system has helped growers make more informed irrigation scheduling decisions and reduced average water applications by more than 50 percent.  Smarter scheduling decreases runoff and means better production with less water.

Better production means more flowering plants, including the pink, white, red, or multicolored beauties that bring so many added holiday cheer.   The next time you gaze at a poinsettia, you can thank Joel Poinsett, America’s nursery industry, and NIFA for adding color to the season, reducing the demand on U.S. water supplies, and protecting the nation’s waterways.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit

Category/Topic: Conservation