Iowans who enjoy the festive color of hollies and poinsettias can give thanks to agricultural scientists. Margaret Pooler, with the USDA’s Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, says the familiar holiday plants weren’t a common site in houses 50 years ago. That’s because poinsettias are naturally large and branchy.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) efforts made them smaller, different colored, and on a schedule. “Development of new ways to produce the plant that would get them all to come in to bloom at once and to stay shorter,” Pooler says. “Timing is everything because if they come into bloom on January first, it’s not really of much value or if they also come into bloom in the middle of October, again it doesn’t help you much.”

As for hollies, USDA Research Geneticist Richard Olsen says the ARS has altered the diversity that is available in hollies and broadened the gene pool of what’s used in the industry. “One of our best introductions is sparkleberry, which is a deciduous holly, which combines traits from a Japanese species and a North American species and the hybrid has a greater show of fruit and they display very well on the branches,” Olsen says.

According to Olsen, the holly-holiday connection predates Christmas — going back to Winter Solstice celebrations.