Poinsettia Man Can Deck Your Halls

Story by Jeannie Stone

If you are finding it hard to tap into your inner fa-la-la, Dr. Jim Collins is the man to help you ease into the holiday spirit. Collins has been the resident horticulture expert at Arkansas Tech University for 26 years. This year also marks the 26th year he has overseen the annual Tech poinsettia sale which is scheduled for Dec. 4 – 5, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the greenhouses located on Red Hill Lane on the north side of the campus.

“I don’t feel that old, but I’m the oldest in age and in tenure in my department. How did that happen? Last year, the unthinkable happened. I taught the son of a former student,” he said, then laughed.

Collin, a former pre-med student, studied for three full years at Mississippi State University. He turned to horticulture after his mother’s death left him questioning his initial decision.

“In college, you experience new things,” he said. “I had never heard of Vo-Tech or horticulture, but I’d always liked tending plants. I found it engrossing.”

Even though his mother had been a nurse, and his uncle, to whom he was very close, was a physician, the family didn’t pressure Collins to complete that path of studies.

“I remember I had 26 hours that didn’t transfer,” he said, “but it was all right. I was doing something I enjoyed.”

Collins earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from Louisiana State University and had just moved to Russellville in August of 1983 when his father passed away on Christmas Eve.

“My dad was a country boy, and I’m so glad he saw me reach a level of success pursuing what we both loved,” he said.

“Back in the old days, I taught anything in the plant world,” Collins said. “They had me teaching Forestry right off, and I’d never even taken a Forestry class in my life.” Due to the hiring of additional faculty members over the years he is now able to concentrate on plant pathology, floriculture and horticulture.

The joy of the poinsettia project lies in the fact that it is a hands-on learning experience. Tech hosts an annual spring sale sponsored by the freshman horticulture class, but the poinsettia sale is the pride of the fall class.

“There’s a big pinch involved,” Collins said. That’s something the students learn pretty soon with the poinsettias. “In the old days, to get five blooms you’d have to plant five rooted cuttings per pot, but now I can plant one stalk and get the same effect.”

The practice is termed “precision pinching,” and the premise is that the number of leaves you leave below a pinch determines the number of blooms.

Collins orders his poinsettias in January but doesn’t plant them until September.

“The first day of class the students are making up labels in the lab. The next class covers mixed media, and then I lecture for two weeks. By the time Fed Ex delivers the boxes, we’re ready to dig in.”

He admits that the plants would be larger if he could plant them before September. “But we have to fit the activities into the teaching schedule,” he said.

Some of this year’s varieties include Autumn Red, Early Marble, Jester Red, Jingle Bells, Peppermint, Freedom Early White, Freedom Early Red, Fireworks, Shimmer Surprise and the unusual Winter Rose, which is bred to resemble a gnarled poinsettia.

“The color is all in the bract, a modified leaf, with the poinsettia,” Collins said. “This year we’re going to actually get creative and paint on the leaves, and we are going to offer foil pot covers for an extra dollar.”

The poinsettia plant is photoperiodic and Collins determines which cultivars to order based on the time constraints of the class. “I order eight-week response plants. That’s eight weeks of short days and long nights.”

“And poinsettias aren’t poisonous,” Collins said. “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Sure, if you let you child or dog eat a lot of the leaves, they’ll probably get sick to their stomach just as if they’d eaten anything inappropriate.”

To prove the point, he snaps off a couple of leaves and chomps on them.

This year, Collins is feeling the joy as well. He has four new greenhouses and a storage building complete with restrooms because campus growth squeezed out his former space.

“Hey, I’m not complaining. It was a move up for us. In all those years we never had bathrooms down here,” he said. “It was really hard during the sales. We’d tell people they’d have to walk to Arby’s to use the restroom. Now we have new heaters, coolers and even a new classroom.” He is hoping to use the storage room to accommodate more shrubs.

“Everything we raise through our student sales stays in the agri budget,” Collins said. “We buy a lot of supplies and everything is getting more expensive. We‘re really self-sufficient here.” The poinsettias are six inch plants and sell for $5 a pot.

Collins is proud of the growth in the horticulture program and boasts of his students’ accomplishments.

“I have some very successful graduates; some are Tyson managers.” He momentarily reflects, “It means so much to us teachers to receive compliments from our former students. Teachers don’t receive standing ovations.”

“These are going to keep turning. I know they are, but I do have 3 1⁄2 weeks to go, so I’m fine,” Collins said as he closely examines a plant. “I go through this every year. I sweat bullets hoping to have as lush and colorful a plant as possible for the sale. In fact, the best thing for me to do is just stay away for a couple of days before checking back in, so I can witness a change.”

Apart from the poinsettia madness, Collins is a self-proclaimed sucker for the Christmas season. He puts up a 14 ft. Christmas tree every year and hosts a neighborhood party at his home. After selling poinsettias and helping supporters all day on the 4th, he will pick up Miss Arkansas Tech in his convertible and escort her through the Russellville Christmas parade. Collins is the past director of the Miss Tech Scholarship pageant.

“It’s always crazy this time of year,” he said. “If I get overwhelmed I sit myself down and remind myself what the season is all about. We all need to do that.”

One question Collins is asked repeatedly is how to care for the poinsettia after blooming.

“I had one woman who put her plant in the closet for two months. She just closed the door on it. Of course, it died. Listen, just come see me, and for $5, I can help you out.”

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