Just about everything is on sale for Christmas this year – but not the festive red plant the poinsettia.
Why? Record energy prices last summer.
They drove up the cost of heating greenhouses and fueling delivery trucks, so distributors passed the higher costs to retailers.
Many growers planted fewer cuttings. Some took a rare hiatus from producing the iconic holiday plants.
The wholesale cost of poinsettias has risen 10 to 15 percent, florists said, but they're trying to absorb as much of the hit as they can because consumers are feeling the brunt of a recession.
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.
At a cost of anywhere from $15 to $40 per 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 U.S. in Mexico, where the plant is indigenous.
While 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 if she'll make the purchase this year or if she'll hope to get one as a gift.
John Ritson, an attorney in 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.
Others, like 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.