Call of the wild

November 06, 2013
Written by Andrea Seccafien
Imported flowers used in Ontario’s $6-billion-a-year landscape and cut flower industries may have to start sharing the soil with native perennial wildflowers that will soon be introduced to the market. These native species are new to commercial production and could provide Ontario greenhouse producers with an opportunity to develop a niche market.

4946-Jeremy-Boychyn  
Jeremy Boychyn is studying native wildflower species to find out how well they can be grown commercially using low water and fertilizer inputs.  PHOTO COURTESY JEREMY BOYCHYN


 
University of Guelph Plant Agriculture graduate student Jeremy Boychyn and Prof. Alan Sullivan are introducing local wildflower species to the landscape and cut flower industries as consumer interests move to native – from foreign – species.

Boychyn is studying their characteristics to find how well they can be grown commercially using low water and fertilizer inputs. This, he says, will take the guesswork out of how to take care of these flowers and cut down on production costs.

HOW BEST TO GROW THEM COMMERCIALLY
■ “These native flowers haven’t been grown in mass amounts yet, so there really hasn’t been any research on how to produce these plants commercially,” he says.

4946-Eastern-bluestar
 
   
Many imported species are more accustomed to environments with abundant water and nutrients, meaning that producers have to constantly supply water, fertilizer and heat to grow these plants successfully in a Canadian environment.

But by using species native to North America, the input levels are already reduced, because these plants come accustomed to Canada’s varying environmental conditions. And unlike imported plants, native wildflowers also don’t run the risk of introducing unfamiliar pests to surrounding plants.

Boychyn is working with eight different species of native flowers found in a variety of habitats across Canada ranging from marsh, to woody areas and prairie land. The species include Eastern Bluestar, Carolina Lupine, Blue False Indigo, Ontario Blazing Star, Prairie Blazing Star, Northern Blazing Star, Button Snakeroot and Barrelhead Gayfeather.

“These local species were chosen for their floral characteristics that we thought would be popular in landscapes and for bouquets and flower arrangements,” says Boychyn.

HOW DO NATIVE PLANTS HANDLE DROUGHT CONDITIONS
■ Boychyn is now developing a floral characterization of these flowers through several trials that test how the plants respond to different fertilizer, water and herbicide input levels. These trials will allow Boychyn and Sullivan to sort out which species are adapted to high or low input growing conditions.

4946-Carolina-bushpea  
Thermopsis villosa, more commonly known as Carolina Bushpea, is native to the southern Appalachian Mountains.

 
He conducted a watering trial within a production greenhouse setting that compared the eight species under high water, low water and cyclic drought regimes to complement the field studies.

The high water treatment kept the plants saturated at all times while the low water treatment kept the plants dry to the touch. The cyclic drought treatment would saturate the soil and allow it dry out until half of the plants showed signs of wilting. At that point, the plant would be re-saturated and the cycle would
start again.

NATIVE PLANTS RESPOND WELL TO LOW WATER CONDITIONS
■ So far, Boychyn can see that the wildflowers respond well to the low water conditions, as there is enough oxygen in the soil and adequate water to produce flowers. Under the high water conditions, Boychyn says the soil cannot get enough oxygen and fewer flowers are produced. The drought treatments have shown that some species can survive dry conditions while others need occasional rainfall to survive.

CUTTING BACK ON INPUTS WITHOUT AFFECTING QUALITY
■ For producers, this means that they can cut back on watering costs, while still being able to grow plenty of healthy flowers for the market.

Boychyn has also been gathering data on how the wildflowers respond to each of the three water treatments by measuring a variety of characteristics such as the plant’s photosynthesis and leaf internal CO2 levels.

By observing these traits in relation to the water treatments, Boychyn will soon be able to give producers a clear idea of what conditions lead to the most efficient growth, as well as identify wildflower species that are the most cost effective to produce.

“Making the public aware of the importance of incorporating native wildflowers into their gardens has opened an environmentally friendly and cost effective niche in the industry that will benefit producers in Ontario,” he says.

This research is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the OMAFRA-funded Highly Qualified Personnel program, and the Growing Canadian Agri-Innovations program.


Andrea Seccafien is a writer/photographer with the Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK) program at the University of Guelph.

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