A Cut Above the Rest

April 16, 2004 - 08:58

Find out which cuts stand out from the rest in this annual cut flower trial report.

The specialty cut flower industry has succeeded in bringing many new and unusual cut flowers to the marketplace. Consumers, florists and wholesalers rely on specialty cuts to provide a fresh look to bouquets and arrangements. For the industry, it is a constant challenge to find new cut flower species and cultivars.

Breeders are an important source of new cut flowers — ranging from new colors and styles of well-established species to completely new categories, such as the hybrid dianthus ‘Amazon Neon’. New cut flowers may also be older species already in cultivation that have been little used or resurrected by the addition of new colors, such as rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’. Occasionally, a species is completely new to cultivation or new to cut flower production, such as Dicentra spectabilis.

Regardless of the source, the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) annually conducts a National Seed and Perennial Trial Program to evaluate new cut flowers for the field cut industry. This year the ASCFG National Cut Flower Trials had 35 cultivar submissions in the seed trial, 23 cultivars in the perennial trial, 10 participating breeders and suppliers and 42 trialers returning evaluations from the United States and Canada. Most of the trialers are commercial cut flower growers, while a few are universities, seed suppliers and other folks interested in supporting field cut production. The top performers in the trials are entered in the ASCFG Cut Flower of the Year contest. Read on to find out the winners.

SEED TRIALS

Lisianthus. Lisianthus has become a favorite cut flower in the industry and has progressed far from the original species, which is native to the southern Great Plains of the United States. Native lisianthus has medium-sized, single, purple flowers. This year’s trial illustrates the change in the species. Two companies included a total of five series with colors ranging from pale greenish white to pink, rose and lavender.

Top honors were taken by ‘Balboa Lavender’ for its color and large double flowers. The stems were strong and plants easy to grow. Respondents reported stem lengths averaging 18 inches (up to 28 inches for some) and yields of 4.8 stems per plant. Lisianthus is amazingly rugged in its native, rather harsh, environment, yet can be hard to grow in the relatively soft life of a cut flower bed. It is always nice to hear from those that have no problem growing quality lisianthus. ‘Balboa Rose’ and ‘Catalina Rose’ also received high marks for their great colors, double flowers and strong stems. New colors have been added to the Cinderella and Twinkle series. ‘Cinderella Pink’ performed the best with 20-inch stems (up to 30 inches for some participants) and 3.1 stems per plant. The flowers were large, full and dark pink. ‘Cinderella Ivory’ and Yellow also did well for most participants. ‘Twinkle White’ and Yellow did well for many trialers, but singles are typically less popular than doubles.

Rudbeckia. Another North American native wildflower is also one of the stars of the 2003 Cut Flower Trials: rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’. This beautiful plant has many of the characteristics of the popular ‘Indian Summer’ — large, long-lasting flowers, strong stems and first-year flowering from seed. Prairie Sun adds bright green centers and striking two-tone pale yellow/dark yellow petals. In our postharvest trials, the cut stems lasted three weeks. Prairie Sun is productive (averaging 12.3 stems per plant), easy to grow, and has a long flowering period. However, for season-long flowering plant every 3-4 weeks. Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Colors’ also did well in the trial, but many trialers found ‘Goldilocks Improved’ too short and weak.

Delphinium. Delphinium is one of our most spectacular cut flowers. The ongoing transition from uneven biennial or perennial to fast-flowering, uniform, F1 annual is apparent in this year’s trial. ‘Aurora Light Blue’ received excellent marks for its beautiful color and short crop time. Of the Guardian series, Blue received the highest marks, but Early Blue, Lavender and White also performed quite well. All were productive with strong stems and full heads and stem lengths of up to 36 inches. Guardian delphiniums also work well as a greenhouse cut flower.

Sunflower. New sunflower cultivars are always popular in the trials. This year we had three cultivars from two companies. The favorite was ‘Sunrich Gold’ with its gold/green pollenless centers, bright petal color and good flower Á size. Plants were uniform and easy to grow. The other two cultivars, ‘Full Sun Improved’ and ‘Golden Glory’ did well for many participants but tended to get excessively tall with too large of heads for some participants.

PERENNIAL TRIALS

Helianthus. One of the stand-out cultivars was Helianthus salicifolius ‘First Light’ (also labeled as Helianthus angustifolius by some companies). This perennial, relative of the common annual sunflower, produced a great show late in the season when most other cuts were winding down. The strong, uniform, vigorous plants produced 8.8 stems per plant in the first season. We look forward to seeing what this species will produce in the second year. The stems were long and topped with clusters of bright yellow flowers with dark centers. In our postharvest trials, the vase life was 12 days in water and up to 17 days in floral preservative.

Orchid. One of the more unusual plants had to be Spiranthes cerna ‘Chadds Ford’ — the first orchid we have tested. Orchids are usually thought of as delicate, tropical greenhouse crops but many species are hardy garden perennials. While it is too soon to tell, the long spikes of small intricate flowers produced by Chadds Ford may be beautiful but not large enough to be worth growing.

Helenium. Helenium ‘Helena Red Shades’ and ‘Helena Gold’ scored well in the trials. These tall, vigorous plants are cold hardy, drought tolerant and productive, producing more than 13 stems per plant in the second year. The stems were more than 40 inches long, with some trialers harvesting 48- to 50-inch stems. Helena Gold has dark-yellow, daisy-shaped flowers, and Helena Red Shades has red flowers edged with varying amounts of yellow. The latter cultivar can be rather variable, with some plants producing solid red flowers and others solid yellow. The only problem with these plants appears to be that their colors sell better in the fall than the summer when they normally flower. This species may be a good candidate for early season cutting back, when shoots are 6-10 inches tall, to delay flowering. One respondent also noted that plants may reflower if cut back prior to the end of the first harvest, when about 10 percent of the flowers are still present.

Lysimachia. The strikingly variegated foliage of lysimachia ‘Alexander’ made a great cut foliage. The plants are prolific and vigorous. Cut this plant primarily for the foliage, as the Á yellow flowers do not add much and tend to shatter in the vase. While stems were short for some folks, others cut up to 36-inch stems.

Pennisetum. For sheer numbers of cut stems pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ was a top producer, with an average of more than 36 stems per plant and at least one respondent cutting 75 stems per plant. Stem length was also good, averaging 34 inches. The prolific plants can be a bit difficult to harvest, and as with many grasses, some people love them while others, especially wholesalers, give them a pass.

Phlox. Phlox is always a favorite cut flower, and Phlox paniculata ‘Miss Violet’ did well in the trials. An average of 6.1 stems per plant were produced with a length of 26.3 inches. Respondents noted the color, fragrance and mildew resistance.

ASCFG CUT FLOWERS OF THE YEAR

Each year the ASCFG membership selects one cultivar to recognize as the “Fresh Cut Flower of the Year” and another as “Dried Cut Flower of the Year.” Plant materials are selected on the basis of reliability, adaptability, overall quality and suitability as a cut flower.

2004 Fresh Cut Flower of the Year: Dianthus ‘Amazon Neon Duo’. One of the top performers in the 2002 ASCFG National Cut Flower Seed Trials, Amazon Neon Duo showed outstanding potential as a cut flower. Its strong, thick stems and vivid purple and cherry colors contrast with green, glossy foliage. Stems can be up to 30 inches long. While this newly-developed hybrid dianthus has large flower clusters similar to Sweet William, it has none of the drawbacks.

This cultivar performs well in Southern zones and does not require vernalization to come into flower. It will produce a highly marketable flower the first year from seed. Amazon Neon Duo handled the heat of Southern summers quite well, producing all season long in Raleigh, N.C. It also has great cold tolerance and handles tough winter weather with few losses. The foliage turns dark purple during cold temperatures and returns to green when growth starts anew in the spring.

2004 Dried Cut Flower of the Year: Paeonia ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. Sarah Bernhardt has long been a favorite of peony fans. The very large, rose-pink flowers are up to 7 inches across and have lighter pink edges. The fragrant flowers open in May or June depending on the climate. Dried, the flowers offer a soft color palette that can warm up almost any setting. Alice Vigliani of Maple Ridge Peony Farm in Conway, Mass., said “Sarah Bernhardt is a success because it has so many petals so symmetrically placed that even when dried it is very full.” Others have said it is “gorgeous dried with a beautiful symmetric form and works well cut in any stage from bud through totally open.” This heritage plant is cold hardy to Zone 3 and productive, producing many strong stems per plant.

Author’s Note: A hearty thank you to all of the evaluators who returned their trial reports and to the seed companies for providing such great cultivars. I would also like to thank Betty Coleman for laboriously typing in everyone’s comments, Diane Mays and Ingram McCall for taking care of the North Carolina State University portion of the trials, Ingram McCall for data entry, and Frankie Fanelli, Lane Greer and Lee Davis for assisting with the NCSU trials.

About The Author

John Dole is professor of floriculture at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached by phone at (919) 515-3537 or E-mail at john_dole@ncsu.edu.

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