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Poinsettias: Pricier and scarcer

CHESHIRE, Conn. - Just about everything is on sale for Christmas this year - except poinsettias.

CHESHIRE, Conn. - Just about everything is on sale for Christmas this year - except poinsettias.

Record energy prices last summer drove up the cost of heating greenhouses and fueling delivery trucks, forcing distributors to pass along higher costs to retailers. Many growers planted fewer cuttings, and some took a rare hiatus from producing the iconic holiday plants.

Florists say the wholesale cost of poinsettias has risen 10 percent to 15 percent, though they're trying to absorb as much of the hit as they can at a time when consumers are feeling the brunt of a recession that appears to be gathering strength.

Lynne Moss, owner of the Flower Shoppe in the 6,500-resident town of Pratt, Kan., said her usual poinsettia distributor had none to offer this year, requiring a special order. The result: poinsettias that once cost $30 a pot in her shop are now about $35, depending on their size.

At a cost of anywhere from $15 to $40 a pot, Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on the flowering plant, which was introduced into America in 1825 by Joel Poinsett, who served as a minister to the United States in Mexico, where the plant is indigenous.

About 47.5 million poinsettias were produced for Christmas 2007, according to the American Society of Florists, which could not provide an estimate for this year's crop.

Although some customers, including churches, have been willing to pay extra, others have not. Instead, they're buying less expensive bromeliads and wreaths.

At a Lowe's store in Bloomfield, Conn., JoAnne Hoye of West Hartford said the supply was noticeably lower, although she didn't see a difference in price. While she usually buys a poinsettia each Christmas, she hasn't decided whether she'll make the purchase this year or whether she'll hope to get one as a gift.

John Ritson, an attorney in nearby Simsbury, said he didn't buy the holiday plants for his law office this year because the store where he normally shops didn't get their shipment of poinsettias on time.

Most U.S. growers plant their poinsettias between June and September. This year, that coincided with soaring energy prices, influencing many growers in cold-weather regions to cut back or eliminate their crops, which require several months to develop in greenhouses maintained at around 65 to 70 degrees.

Poinsettias are extra energy intensive because they are spaced out in greenhouses to encourage them to grow thick and wide, not tall and skinny. The plants also require more space in delivery trucks than, say, wreaths and holly plants, which can be bunched together.

In Cheshire, which bills itself as the "bedding plant capital of Connecticut," several growers decided not to offer poinsettias this year or cut back dramatically.

Others, such as Kurtz Farms in Cheshire, hope that sticking with the iconic plant - even if they have to eat a portion of the increased costs - pays off in customer loyalty.

"There's no doubt they cost more to grow this year, but if we say, 'That's it, we're done with that,' it'll be very hard to get back in the game later," said Earl Kurtz III, whose grandfather started the family business almost 70 years ago.

Prices for poinsettias will vary by variety, size, where they were grown and how much of the higher costs retailers will absorb.

Recent relief in oil prices could help cut distribution costs.

Some retailers said they refuse to charge more for fear of alienating customers.

At Gordon Bonetti Florist in Hartford, a poinsettia that cost $40 last year is still $40 this year, said owner John Tornatore. Even a $5-per-pot increase can scare off a customer, said Tornatore.

For example, a company that orders 200 poinsettias at $40 each would see its price jump from $8,000 to $9,000, "and that's enough for the boss to tell the administrative assistant, 'Get on the phone and call around, find someone else,' " Tornatore said.

And scaring away customers in one season with a jump in poinsettia prices could have repercussions for months or years afterward.

"Obviously, flower purchases are disposable income for lots of people, and we sure don't want to drive them away," said Robert Buettner, owner of Paul Buettner Florists in East Hartford.