Strategic planting

To meet demand, businesses add employees, coordinate

December 07. 2012 3:00AM

Tim Stuhldreher

Buying poinsettias is as easy as picking them out and paying, either online or in person.

Employees Devin Horst, left, and father Charles organize poinsettias for shipping at Esbenshade's Greenhouses Inc. In 2011, the Lancaster County plant grower shipped 240,000 poinsettias to retailers in Pennsylvania and six neighboring states. Photo/Amy Spangler

But as is the case with any product, getting the popular plants to market involves a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

"It's all very orchestrated," said Tom Royer, chief operating officer of Royer's Flowers & Gifts and one of three brothers who run the business.

During the next few weeks, Royer's will move about 30,000 poinsettias through the Lebanon County distribution center that serves its Pennsylvania stores.

Royer's has 16 locations in Central and Eastern Pennsylvania as well as a Stephenson's Flowers & Gifts in Lower Paxton Township and three Connells Maple Lee shops in Ohio. It's one of the largest florists in the country, Royer said.

To handle holiday demand, the company adds 150 to 200 seasonal workers — many retirees, college students and homemakers — to its standard workforce of about 300, Royer said.

Many return each year, which is beneficial, because they come in with a background of knowledge and can get up to speed quickly, he said.

"It's nice to have the repeat people coming back," he said. "It's a nice job for a short period of time."

Many of the poinsettias that Royer's sells come from Esbenshade's Greenhouses Inc., a major regional grower with greenhouses and a wholesale operation in Lancaster County's Elizabeth Township.

In 2011, Esbenshade's shipped 240,000 poinsettias to retailers in Pennsylvania and six neighboring states, co-owner Roger Esbenshade said.

Each year, shortly after the holiday season, Royer's looks at its sales results and decides how many poinsettias it will need the following year, Royer said.

Poinsettias vary greatly in size, color, number of blooms and so on. Royer's specifies in detail how much of each kind it wants and places its orders "months and months ahead," Royer said.

Growing the poinsettias begins in earnest in the summer, Esbenshade said. Cuttings taken from "mother plants" are planted in stages; ones planted earlier have time to grow taller.

After mid-September, the greenhouses must be kept completely dark at night for the poinsettias colors to change between mid-November through December, co-owner and retail general manager Terry Esbenshade said.

Royer's visits its growers in November to inspect the plants, then emails its finalized delivery schedules, Royer said.

Esbenshade's ships its poinsettias in climate-controlled trucks, Roger Esbenshade said. Poinsettias are sensitive to cold, so they shouldn't be exposed to temperatures below 55 degrees, he said. Nor should they be kept too long in the wrappings used to protect them during shipping.

"Two days is the longest I'd want to see before they're unpacked," he said.

Growers and retailers rely on each other to do what it takes to maintain quality. Royer's has worked with Esbenshade's for 30 years and considers them one of their best growers, Royer said.

Roger Esbenshade returned the compliment, saying Royer's does "everything right."

As one might expect, computers have made it easier for florists to manage inventory and their supply chain, Royer said. Royer's sells poinsettias in dozens of size and color combinations; a number on the price tag encodes those details.

Besides poinsettias, Royer's will prepare more than 20,000 cut-flower arrangements, Royer said.

Economic impact

Though many people think of poinsettias as having brightly colored flowers, it is actually the specialized leaves, called bracts,that are colorful; the flowers are small and inconspicuous.

Poinsettias are vastly popular plants. In 2011, the 15 states with the biggest flower industries produced 34.7 million poinsettia pots with a wholesale value of $139.3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pennsylvania produced 3.4 million poinsettias in 2007, ranking No. 5 on the USDA list for number of plants, though their wholesale value, $7.2 million, ranked No. 9.

As for the economic impact of flowers in general, an estimated 828 retail florists in Pennsylvania employed 3,894 people as of the first quarter of 2009, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. On the wholesale side, the department lists 102 employers in the "flower, nursery stock and florists' supplies merchant wholesalers" category, employing just over 10,000 people.

By the numbers

Esbenshade’s Greenhouses Inc.

Acres of poinsettia greenhouses: 12

Number of varieties grown: 67

States served: 7

Poinsettias sold wholesale in 2011: 240,000


Royer’s Flowers & Gifts

Number of Pennsylvania stores: 17 (16 Royer’s, one Stephenson’s)

Poinsettias distributed in Pennsylvania: 30,000

Seasonal workers: 150 to 200


Source: Royer’s Flowers & Gifts, Esbenshade’s Greenhouses Inc.