Travels on Highway 101, Part I

June 12, 2003 - 11:11

This historic highway takes you from one end of the state to the other, with a whole lot of plants in between.

Pack trials this year seemed a lot like our national
outlook: cautious and playing to its strengths. There was a lot of wonderful
material, but it was toned down a bit from last year. There seemed to be more
improvements on existing series, and fewer off-the-wall new plant
introductions. Guess that is to be expected given the economic climate of 2003.

I feel very fortunate to be able to work in the new crops
area of our industry; however, by three days into pack trials, I found myself
more interested in the display containers than in the plants that fill the
pots. This year was a tough one for the marginals I like so much.

Regardless of my preferences, I'll be the first to admit we
wouldn't have an industry if it weren't for the generic bedding material; it
just gets a little hard to compare very similar plants at different locations
and then remember why this red (insert generic crop) is so vastly different
from the other 15 red (insert generic crop) series you saw yesterday. Pack
Trials attendees are treated to a mind-numbing array of improved geraniums, New
Guinea impatiens, bedding impatiens, begonias, vincas, petunias, etc. -- all of
which are very good.

Sorting out differences between plants became even more
important this year, as I was touring with the editors from GPN, some of which
were getting their first exposure to the diversity of our industry. By the end
of day two, everyone was overloaded with cultivar names and struggling to get
through to the real issues involved with all these crops.

Almost everyone we saw had a good representation of plant
materials, but color and name aside, the real issues come down to crop
scheduling, time to flower, patented or unpatented materials, and specific
production requirements. By the end of Pack Trials, both Pooh and June (names
changed to protect the innocent) were asking the right questions. It is really
a matter of cutting to the chase or drowning in information that, in the end,
isn't critical. It was a real education to travel with the GPN crew, and I
earned a new name "Richard Cranium," I think because I was the
resident "know-it-all."

Sunsatia Nemesia

This series of nemesia from Proven Winners reports combining
the colors of the old Nemesia strumosa with the hardiness of the Nemesia
fruticans group. In summary, while the N. fruticans group is tougher and easier
to produce, it is limited to shades of blue and pink. While the N. strumosa
group has a broader color range that includes reds and oranges, it requires
such cool conditions that its uses are limited.

The Sunsatia series has a brilliant crimson, as well as
yellow and white tones. Plants are a bit finer textured than N. strumosa, but
with large flowers and strong growth. I think this series will definitely open
up this crop to growers who might not have tried it before. For Southern
growers, this entire genus has huge potential as a winter flowering plant. We
are currently trialing some of the Sunsatia in our spring trials. While they
are doing well, our heat has already begun to kick in, and it will be
interesting to see how much they can handle. Northern growers would have a much
longer spring season to work with, and these plants are easy to produce!

The Sunsatia series currently includes: 'Sunsatia Banana', a
medium yellow; 'Sunsatia Coconut', a cream; 'Sunsatia Cranberry', a cranberry
red; 'Sunsatia Lemon', a bright yellow; 'Sunsatia Peach', a light yellow and
soft violet bicolor; and 'Sunsatia Pineapple', a pale yellow.

Intensia phlox

OK, we use Phlox drummondii for a highway wildflower here in
Florida, and I was a little skeptical of what this series might do. So far,
they are one of the stars of our spring trials and have been in constant flower
since planted March 31. Intensia from Proven Winners is basically a larger
flowered hybrid with a slightly grayer leaf color and a prostrate growth habit.
All varieties in the series are compact, low growing and spreading. The entire
canopy is covered in blooms and has been for six weeks. Intensia has sailed
through our 90º F heat wave and continue to show no signs of losing steam.

This is another easy and very rewarding crop to grow, as it
began flowering quickly and would have a very short crop time. Again, primarily
a spring crop, but it will be interesting to see how much heat it'll take when
the summer rains kick in, and I hope they will have enough frost tolerance to
enter the winter season market as well.

Verbascum

Verbascum, common name Wooly Mullein (Verbascum thapsus),
has species native to almost every state in the union. These are great
drought-tolerant, upright-flowering plants that deserve the attention we give
foxgloves and delphinium, whose growth habit they share. Verbascum have little
to no chilling requirement, prefer poor soils in the landscape and can be grown
by anyone enterprising enough to try them out. An advantage over their more
popular cousins is that they have a strong foliage interest, as well as
beautiful flowers. The more unimproved species have small flowers on upright
spikes over silvery Á foliage. In most flowering cultivars, you'll find
the silver hairs reduced and the flower colors from red, purple and pink into
yellow and white.

I found two verbascum at this year's Pack Trials. The first
is Verbascum bombicyferum from Benary. With silver foliage and a strong rosette
shape, this plant makes a beautiful foliage accent. The second is the 'Southern
Charm' series (hybrids of Verbascum phoeniceum) from PanAmerican Seed. The series
is actually sold as a cut flower mix but can be produced in 1-gal. containers.
Colors in the series range from white through purple reds and are very
attractive. A side note, backpackers use Verbascum thapsus as toilet paper, so
even if your crop doesn't sell, it always has a backup use! Just kidding, but
as with any new crop, start small and grow the crop once you have the market
for it.

Next Month

Recommending new crops can always be a little tough,
especially for a marginal crops guy like me. Hope you find these few varieties
useful. They really are winners. I'll be highlighting additional varieties next
month.

About The Author

Rick Schoellhorn is extension specialist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 x364 or E-mail at rksch@ifas.ufl.edu.

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