by Bill and Mary Weaver
Linda Zoerb, president of LaCrosse Floral in WI, has been growing poinsettias—and many other greenhouse plants—since she was a child, as did her brother and cousins [who have since gone on to other occupations], her father, two uncles, and her grandfather. Her optimistic great-grandfather Zoerb, already a member of the corporation, purchased the greenhouses in 1930 just after the start of the Great Depression. In the 1920’s, much of the complex had previously been destroyed and rebuilt, first after a fire and then after a flood. Optimism, perseverance, hard work, and forward-looking business decisions have long been Zoerb family traits.
Today, LaCrosse Floral grows a selection of poinsettias for retail customers, with many solid accounts with churches and corporations as well as individual purchasers. Linda Zoerb (CFD, AAF) is well connected in the industry, and makes a point of keeping up on new poinsettia varieties, including being involved in trials.
Last year in late November when we visited, several of Zoerb’s 18 greenhouses were filled with beautiful poinsettia plants, including Princettia Light Pink and Princettia Hot Pink, which the operation was growing for the second year.
This year the Zoerb greenhouses are again growing Christmas Beauty Red; Polar Bear; Pink Candy; and Christmas Day Red, with the addition of Classic Pink, Christmas Beauty [marble bracts], Jingle Bells Rock, and Euro Glory Red.
Linda has enjoyed using a little drama to encourage poinsettia purchases by pet owners and the parents of small children, many of whom are afraid that the leaves are poisonous. Zoerb actually appeared on TV eating a “salad” made with poinsettia leaves with bleu cheese dressing. “The Humane Society website will also tell you that poinsettia leaves are not dangerous,” she commented.
Trends Zoerb has noticed in recent poinsettia introductions include: oval leaves rather than oak-leaf-shaped leaves; cyathia that are slower to mature and shed pollen; dark chocolate-colored foliage; true white bracts (as opposed to cream-colored or off-white); and varieties that can be grown and/or finished at cooler temperatures or lower light.
“The dark chocolate leaves can tend to make cream or off-white bracts look dirtyish,” she said, “so the dark chocolate leaves need to be bred with true white bracts. More and more companies are working on producing new poinsettia varieties, and most plug production is either off-shore or on the islands.” With the assistance of radiation-induced color mutations and interspecific breeding, more and more variability is becoming possible.
“When I was growing up,” Zoerb recalled, “everyone grew the Hegge variety from Germany. Every poinsettia had the same genetics. If we wanted to sell some early, we pulled a black cloth over the benches. We would also give some artificial light to late-planted ones, so that right before Christmas, people could purchase fresh plants. We grew the Hegge variety into the 80’s. Now there are so many variety choices, from 7 ½ to 10-week varieties, to stretch out the ‘bloom’ period. Poinsettia growing has become much simpler.
“We also used to grow our own poinsettia cuttings from the Hegge plants. In May and June we developed the ‘Mother’ plants. Then in July we planted the cuttings under perpetual mist lines. We did it all.
“When I came back to work after college, I discovered it cost us 87 cents to produce each cutting. (A big part of that was for labor). We could, at that time, have cuttings trucked in for 57 cents each.” Thus ended the operation’s production of poinsettia cuttings.
“Now we simply plant flown-in poinsettias plugs in July in the garage, wearing shorts,” smiled Linda Carlson, head grower for the operation.
“We did continue to grow and ship geranium cuttings for Ball Seed, though, for many years,” Zoerb recalls.
Many of the 18 greenhouses at La Crosse Floral are kept busy nearly all year. In spring and early summer, La Crosse Floral still fills and retails all 18 greenhouses in bedding plants. The operation employs from 28 to 43 employees at various times of the year.
“To compete,” Zoerb commented, “we pride ourselves on our variety and selection. We offer our customers a choice of 20 to 25 varieties of verbenas, for example.” The current interest in container and window box gardening has significantly boosted vegetable plant sales, including mini-watermelons and Armenian and gherkin cucumbers. “’MasterPiece’ peas can grow hanging out of window boxes when planted as plugs in April with pansies. Sprouts, tendrils, peas and pods of this variety are all delicious.” Up until Easter, some of their greenhouses are still filled with potted Easter lilies, long a Zoerb family specialty. “Before World War II, most Easter lily bulbs came from Japan. My Grandfather and his good friends Vic and George Ball of Ball Seeds anticipated what would likely happen to this trade if Japan entered the war, so they began to grow the bulbs in large quantities from seed.”
Their forward thinking paid off. “We were able to supply Easter lily bulbs to a 100-mile radius of our greenhouse,” recalls Zoerb. When the supply was cut off by World War II, “we were never without Easter lilies, when nobody else had them.”
The operation also has “The Cave,” which was dug out of the hillside and abandoned by a brewing company. The now-famous Cave, including a cement pad and a Quonset hut, has been the perfect holding place for Holland bulbs for forcing and sale, holding a steady temperature of within 2 degrees of 42 degrees F. year round. “The Holland bulb people love that.”
A former Member of the Board of American Hort, Linda Zoerb also currently helps to select scholarship recipients for The American Floral Endowment, an umbrella group that handles applications for scholarships funded by many companies and individuals. “I’m always buoyed by reading the scholarship applications,” she stated. “Many candidates say they were touched by a prof or mentor who helped them to realize there can still be a career in Horticulture.
“For myself, I never expected to do this for a career. My parents gave me the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted. I had started a PhD in molecular genetics before I decided to come back. I’m the last of my generation left with the greenhouse business, but I do have many younger relatives.”
by Bill and Mary Weaver