Perspectives Online

Drs. William Fonteno (left), Paul Nelson and John Dole are among key players in a program that supports the floriculture industry locally, nationally and internationally.
Photo by Daniel Kim

What makes a perfect rose in the eye of the consumer? How do you get that full, blooming potted plant to stay beautiful once you get it home? How can cut flowers shipped from overseas stay fresh?

These are the kinds of questions that researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' floriculture program are trying to answer. Researchers across disciplines help create flowers, bedding plants and ornamentals that meet the needs of both consumers and the floriculture industry.

N.C. State University has the third-largest floriculture program in the country. The program supports the industry both nationally and internationally, as well as in North Carolina, where the industry is ranked sixth nationally.

Much of the program's work takes place at the Horticulture Field Laboratory next to N.C. State's JC Raulston Arboretum. There, in a refrigerated room, research into cut flower preservation is taking place.

Dr. John Dole, professor of horticultural sciences, is among the key players in the floriculture program, working with the other principal members of the team - Drs. William Fonteno, Paul Nelson and Brian Whipker. They are working on a number of research projects related to cut flowers for the industry. "We do cut flowers from beginning to end," he said.

A number of factors go into creating the perfect cut flower, Dole said. "First, the flower has to be nice." A long stem for bouquets is also a requirement for the floral industry.

"Those that look good in the field, we evaluate for postharvest use," he said. Growers want varieties that produce lots of flowers. Overseas growers want to be able to ship fresh flowers to international markets and have them arrive in good shape with a reasonable shelf life. And of course, consumers want flowers that last for days in their homes or places of business.

In the laboratory setting, the researchers mimic conditions that flowers would experience from the fields to the consumer's vase. That includes handling in the field or greenhouse, as well as transport and storage in buckets at the florist.

One project he's conducting is how long roses can be kept out of water once they are cut. Dole said that when a flower is cut, water in the stem retreats and the flower will not take in more water. That's why industry wisdom has held that flowers should either be cut under water or immersed immediately after cutting.

The research project explores different lengths of time that flowers can be kept out of water after cutting. In the study, the length of time between cutting and immersion in water ranges from 10 minutes to 24 hours. Early results seem to indicate that 20-60 minutes is the optimum time allowed for getting cut flowers into water, allowing growers more flexibility than traditionally thought.

The College's floriculture program also coordinates national variety trials of cut flowers for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Dole said. The program provides seed and young plants to about 50 cooperating growers across the country. At N.C. State, trials focus on varieties that will grow well here.

One of the program's big annual events is the poinsettia open house, held in late November. N.C. State is part of a poinsettia trial program that also involves the University of Florida and Purdue University, as well as Homewood Nursery, a commercial operation in Raleigh. The nursery opens its doors to reveal a sea of reds and pinks that fill the nursery greenhouses. North Carolina is the nation's second-largest producer of poinsettias.

Another big event that brings out the state's flower growers is the Landscape Color Field Day, held in July with sponsorship from the N.C. Flower Growers Association. The field day features research information on variety trials and new practices relevant to the production of bedding plants.

The floriculture program also collaborates with Clemson University and Michigan State University on unrooted cuttings. Many plants are now grown from cuttings, but because it is a labor-intensive process, much of the actually planting is done overseas. This research is looking for ways to improve the shipping and survivability of unrooted cuttings.
    Other research projects include:
  • Efforts by Fonteno, horticultural science professor, to develop scientific standards for substrates, such as potting soil, mulches and urban soils.
  • Studies by Whipker, horticultural science associate professor, on plant growth regulators and plant nutrition - creating compact, flowering plants for growers and gardeners. Whipker also is editor of the N.C. Commercial Flower Growers Bulletin.
  • Research by Nelson, a leading floriculture nutritionist, on sudden pH decline in geraniums and the dynamics of pH and nutrients within the growing substrates.
Of course, the researchers credit a large part of the success of the floriculture program to the graduate students and support staff, who include Beth Harden, Ingram McCall and Diane Mays.

Other researchers working on floriculture projects in the College include Bryon Sosinksi and John Williamson, horticultural science; Colleen Warfield, James Moyer, Gerald Holmes, Mike Benson and Paola Veronese, plant pathology; Chris Casey, entomology; Charles Safeley, agricultural and resource economics; Dan Willits, biological and agricultural engineering; George Allen, crop science; and Niki Roberson, botany.

The job outlook for students graduating in floriculture - with both two-year and four-year degrees - is bright, Dole says. "The industry needs more students than we turn out," he said. Most students who go to work in the industry enter with a starting salary of the mid-$30,000s to mid-$40,000s for growers.

In addition, North Carolina is home to four of the nation's largest floriculture operations - three near Charlotte and one near Asheville. The state's climate is ideal for floriculture, warm enough for a long growing season and cool enough to allow growers to control temperatures in greenhouses. The climate, combined with a supply of trained students and collaboration with researchers, makes a very favorable environment for floriculture in North Carolina.