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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Research: Boosting the Bluebonnet's Market Potential

LAS CRUCES--With a little work on presentation, the bluebonnet could be a rising star in the competitive cut flower market.

"The bluebonnet is native in the south around the Big Ben region--a short drive from New Mexico--so there's a real local flavor to it," said Geno Picchioni, a horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station.

"This plant has a huge potential as a cut flower crop for the floral industry under greenhouse conditions."

The bluebonnet has a lot going for it. It is a beautiful, bushy, winter annual plant that is adapted to New Mexico's semiarid climate, said horticulture graduate student Mario Valenzuela. Each plant yields 20 to 25 good quality spikes, or racemes, of purplish-blue flowers.

The first overall impression you have of the flowers is the blue," said freshman Shanna Armenta-Sanchez, who works with Picchioni and Valenzuela as a student laboratory assistant. "And when they're in bloom, they smell wonderful."

There's an increasing demand among consumers for blue cut flowers, Picchioni said. New bluebonnet varieties have a short growing period--a plus for greenhouse production. And the cut spikes hold up well during refrigerated shipping.

With all these qualities, the flower could fill a niche in New Mexico's growing greenhouse industry, he said.

But in the cut-throat, cut flower business, the bluebonnet has a downside: a short vase life. The little flowers growing up and down the spikes dry up and fall off quickly after cutting.

Also, unlike a single rose or carnation, the multiple flowers have varying growth rates. As the oldest flowers at the bottom of the spike are drying up, the ones at the top may still be growing.

When treated with a silver-based compound, the ripening process that leads to the dried up flowers is slowed. But since the compound contains a heavy metal that has already been banned in flower-loving Amsterdam, Picchioni said the domestic greenhouse industry probably won't be able to rely on it in the future. So, he and Valenzuela are working to find an alternative.

The researchers are having good luck with an environmentally safe calcium salt that's worked well for a variety of edible crops like apples, carrots, peaches, peppers and tomatoes, but hasn't been well tested with floral crops, Picchioni said.

In preliminary research, the calcium prolonged the bluebonnet's vase life by about three to five days. "Spikes treated with the calcium held their water and lasted longer," Valenzuela said.

In other types of crops, the calcium works to refute Mother Nature's tendency to produce a ripening hormone called ethylene. Ethylene causes flowers to dry up quickly and go to seed to make more plants. Earlier work by NMSU researcher Marisa Wall and graduate student Kathy Vazquez found that bluebonnets are very sensitive to ethylene.

For calcium to be a viable option for the greenhouse industry, its application needs to be practical on a large scale. The researchers are looking at dipping, spraying and introducing the calcium through an irrigation system.

The research has gotten a little easier this spring. Last year, Valenzuela had to irrigate 250 bluebonnet plants by hand with exactly 3.2 liters of water for each. This chore took as much as four hours twice a week. With a new irrigation system in place this season, he can water the plants in just eight minutes.

Valenzuela and Armenta-Sanchez are pampering a new bunch of bluebonnets in a greenhouse at the Fabian Garcia Research Center, located in University Avenue in Las Cruces. In order to work on prolonging the flowers' vase life after cutting, they first need a good, healthy crop of the flowers to test.

Valenzuela also plans to study more closely how the calcium works to slow deterioration of the flowers' cell membranes, which are a major regulatory factor in the breakdown of the flower tissue.

The research is funded through a grant from the Fred C. Gloeckner Foundation in New York, which supports research and educational projects in floriculture.