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Experts Put Flowering Plants “On Trial” To Aid Consumers

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Rick Schoellhorn, (352) 392-5670
Rick Kelly, (941) 751-7636 ext. 307
Brent Harbaugh, (941) 751-7636 ext. 238
Roger Dutcher, (864) 388-9903

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BRADENTON, Fla. — If the flowering plants you bought for Valentine’s Day don’t live up to your expectations, maybe the “flower power” judges can help.

The judges are University of Florida floriculture experts, and they’re holding trials — variety trials, that is — where new varieties of popular flowers are tested in different locations around the state to determine which ones grow best under local conditions.

“Plant breeders produce hundreds of new varieties each year and they’re not all adapted to every climate,” said Rick Schoellhorn, UF extension floriculture specialist in Gainesville. “Sometimes flowering plants are sold in places where they can’t survive. We want to end this problem in Florida.”

Schoellhorn is director of the statewide flower trials program, which tests new varieties of flowering plants at facilities operated by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The trials are held three times each year, with winter trials currently under way at several UF research and education centers.

The program is being upgraded to make it more consumer-oriented, said Rick Kelly, research coordinator for variety trials at UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Bradenton, Fla. The center, the state’s oldest trials site, is hosting a field day Feb. 21, and the public is invited.

“This spring, we will begin certifying ‘best-of-class’ varieties that perform exceptionally well, and publicize the results,” Kelly said. “Initially we’re concentrating on violas, pansies, vincas and petunias but we hope to establish best-of-class varieties for all recognized colors and color patterns of all major flowering plants.”

To determine best-of-class varieties, UF experts look at each color or color pattern separately, analyzing data on the quality and hardiness of available varieties. After a best-of-class variety is named, it retains its title until “defeated” by a newcomer with superior qualities.

The program includes both annual and perennial bedding plants, said Brent Harbaugh, a floriculture specialist who directs variety trials at the Bradenton center. Each site has a specific focus, which may include specific plant species and growing methods. Depending on the site, plants may be cultivated outdoors, indoors or in greenhouses.

In the trials, researchers look for qualities such as heat tolerance and disease resistance, noting appearance, size and number of blooms, he said.

“There’s definitely a survival-of-the-fittest aspect to the trials, especially outdoors,” Harbaugh said. “But aesthetic factors are just as important. Ideally, you want the total package — a hardy plant that produces lots of gorgeous, long-lasting flowers.”

Even for varieties that fall short of best-of-class status, a strong showing in the UF trials can increase sales, said Harbaugh, who also breeds new varieties of lisianthus flowers. Casual gardeners and landscaping professionals may prefer can’t-miss varieties because they require less care, and some retailers find it more profitable to carry only hardy plants.

Seed producers sponsor the UF trials and submit newly developed varieties each year, using the results to plan marketing strategies for the entire Southeast, Harbaugh said. Plant breeders, wholesalers and retailers also use the information.

In 2000, total wholesale value of Florida bedding and garden plants topped $107 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, the figure was $2.1 billion. Florida ranks fifth in U.S. bedding and garden plant production.

Recent upgrades should make the UF program more valuable to industry, said Roger Dutcher, regional manager of The Paul Ecke Ranch, a supplier of vegetatively propagated annuals based in Encinitas, Ca.

“The program includes more sites now than it did a few years ago,” Dutcher said. “That generates interest from producers, because the more climates and geographical sites used for trials, the greater chance we’ll get an accurate picture of growing conditions throughout the state.”

Schoellhorn said the trial sites eventually will include about 50 county-operated ornamental gardens, and UF will add statewide trials for trees, shrubs, vines and native plants.