Flowers & Foliage: Overview

The production and marketing of cut flowers and cut foliage is an opportunity for small farmers to operate a sustainable alternative enterprise. Fifteen to twenty years ago, specialty cut flowers and cut foliage became more important crops due to several reasons.

  • (1) Consumers had more disposable income and were willing to spend more on specialty cut flowers and foliage.
  • (2) Consumers and therefore florists also started asking for new and unusual flowers and greens, many of which could not be grown and/or successfully imported from Central and South America.
  • (3) Garden television programs and garden “gurus” in various media brought cut decorations into the public consciousness.
  • (4) More farmers’ markets were started and cut flowers and greens became important to buyers in those markets.
  • (5) Large chain stores began selling cut arrangements.

Florida’s cut foliage industry reportedly started from humble origins in Yalaha, Lake County, in 1893 with the commercial production of plumosus fern (Asparagus plumosus). By the early 1900s the center of plumosus production had moved to Pierson in Volusia County. Rapid growth in the industry did not begin until leatherleaf fern, Rumohra adantiformis, was introduced during the 1950s. Leatherleaf fern came to be used year round because of its low cost, availability, durability, and consumer demand. Leatherleaf fern soon dominated the market and sales increased rapidly, but because of intense competition from Central America, leatherleaf production has declined in the last few years. In contrast, other cut foliage sales increased. Sales of Florida cut foliage totaled $83.4 million during 2003, nearly 77% of the U.S. total. Production is still centered in Pierson, the self-styled "Fern Capital of the World,” and in other areas of Volusia County. There is also considerable production in adjoining Putnam and Lake counties.

The cut flower industry in Florida is small when compared to California, but the potential exists for rapid expansion of many desirable species that grow well in Florida’s warm and humid climate. Cut flowers are almost a $306 million industry in California, producing 72% of all commercially grown cut flowers in the United States. Having a mild climate with advanced greenhouse technology present, Florida has the potential to significantly increase production and sales by growing such flowers as heliconia, bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia), blue ginger (Alpinia), dendrobium orchids, and many others.

The future of cut roses and other flowers may lie in hydroponic culture. This technologically advanced method is used extensively in the Netherlands and California. Significantly better plants can be grown hydoponically. Roses grown hydoponically tend to have longer, thicker caliber stems and achieve fancy and extra fancy grades more often.

The risk involved in a cut flower or foliage operation is large because of intense international competition, especially from Central and South America, and shifting consumer tastes in floral arrangements. However, there is a large and increasing demand for new and unusual material accompanied by the willingness of buyers to pay top dollar for such products. There is also the proven demand for such continual favorites like sunflower and leatherleaf fern, with top quality and new cultivars commanding a price premium. In addition, Florida’s unique climate opens opportunities for growing many plants that cannot be grown economically in latitudes to our north. The infrastructure is also present in Florida. The facilities are present to grow, assemble, store, and ship a great variety of cut materials to include the important category of value-added products. These factors give Florida growers a competitive edge, if the best research-based cultural practices are utilized along with excellent management practices.