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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sentinel

A new grant is helping a budding industry in Florida take root. The $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay for new equipment and marketing for wildflower growers, who are currently harvesting and cleaning tiny seeds as they build their young industry. Growers are also combating an irony that has long haunted Florida: Despite the state's name, derived from the Spanish word for "flower," most of the wildflower seeds sold and planted here are imported from Texas and other states. Now, with rising gas prices and shrinking water supplies, wildflowers provide a low-impact alternative for landscaping lawns. State transportation officials are gunning for the locally produced seeds to replace grass along highways -- mowing is expensive. Where do most seeds come from?

Seeds sold in most retail stores and planted along highways usually come from Texas, California, New England and states that have large-scale production. Texas in particular is a major supplier because former first lady Lady Bird Johnson helped found a national wildflower research center there in 1982. Why do we need seeds grown in Florida? "It's not only buying native, but it's buying native that's adapted to our climate," says Jeff Norcini, wildflower expert at the University of Florida. A black-eyed Susan seed harvested in Colorado, for example, will not fare as well as the same species of black-eyed Susan harvested in Florida. In Florida's climate, it may not reseed itself well. Is the state trying to put more wildflowers along roadways? For years the state has planted wildflowers along highways, but they usually don't grow back so they're replanted annually. Now the focus is on getting wildflowers to reseed themselves -- something locally produced seeds help with -- and preserving existing stands along the roadways. Areas with flowers require less mowing and can save money -- it costs about $250 to mow a mile of highway. Jeff Caster, landscape architect for the state Department of Transportation, said his goal is for most roadsides to be "managed meadows." Who are the local growers? About 70 miles from Orlando, two growers are producing seeds in Crescent City. Both are longtime fern farmers but started supplemental flower operations because of stiff competition in the fern market from Central America. In the Panhandle, tobacco farmers have also used wildflower-growing as a way to diversify. How do you harvest seeds? J.R. Newbold, one of the Crescent City farmers and president of a growers cooperative, is still figuring out the most efficient methods. Right now, his employees hit the flowers with a broom, sending the little pellets onto a ground cover. They sweep them up with shovels, sift away the dirt and twigs, and send them away for cleaning. Newbold said he tried to use a homemade vacuum device to suck up the seeds, but it was difficult to maneuver. He also found that his crop of phlox, a pink and purple flower, was limited this year -- he thinks that's because he harvested too much seed the year before. What about those Florida wildflower license plates? Since they debuted in 2000, nearly 120,000 plates have been sold, generating almost $1.8 million for wildflower research, education and planting. How can I get locally produced seeds? Visit the Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative at floridawildflowers.com or 352-988-8117. The cooperative started five years ago and represents about 20 growers. Is it possible to replace all the grass in a yard with wildflowers? Yes, but very few people have done it. Norcini has a wildflower lawn and says he waters it a handful of times during the year, rarely mows and never uses fertilizer. He does weed it once every few weeks, but said that some people don't get it, even when the lawn is in full bloom. "A couple times a year somebody comes by and says, 'Can I mow your weeds?' " he said. Rachael Jackson can be reached at rjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7923.

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