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Flowers of Hope

NC State's John Dole and Ingram McCall examine pink poinsettias they are testing for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Kay Yow forever linked NC State with breast cancer awareness through her courageous battle with the disease as well as the creation of the annual Hoops for Hope women’s basketball fundraiser. Now, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, NC State floriculturists have unveiled a new symbol of the fight against breast cancer – pink poinsettias.

The program, based in the university’s horticultural science department, is the first to test pink poinsettia varieties that the industry would like to market for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The yet-unnamed varieties were developed by crossing traditional Christmas red poinsettias and a white flower that is a close relative.

Not far from campus, rows of pink poinsettias are on display in a greenhouse where horticulture professor John Dole and horticulture technician Igram McCall have tried different strategies for getting the pink poinsettias ready for an October release.  Similar new varieties were previously tried for Christmas, but plant breeders found that the pink flowers did not sell well at Christmas.

Dole said there are challenges with getting poinsettias into full color in October. Like poinsettias cultivated for Christmas, the pink hybrid poinsettias must receive limited exposure to daylight in order to develop the bright, pink flowers. Beginning in mid-August, the plants in the greenhouse are “black-clothed” to block light for 15 hours each day, giving them nine hours of light. The problem with black-clothing the plants so early is that the heat of the summer greenhouse can actually prevent the poinsettias from forming flowers.

The duo tried black-clothing the plants for as little as four weeks and up to six weeks, which seems to be the optimal time period, Dole said. Of three varieties tested, one with darker center petals and lighter petals on the outside has performed especially well.

Poinsettias perform well in the home, lasting several months indoors with proper sunlight and water, so a poinsettia purchased in October could well last through Christmas.

The poinsettia varieties Dole has tested are not yet available to the public, though they are available to North Carolina growers. And since the varieties have not been named, perhaps one could be named the Kay Yow Poinsettia in memory of our beloved coach who lost her own fight against breast cancer.

Dole says he’ll make that suggestion.

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