The bride-to-be walked into my hoop house in late June and literally gasped when she saw the Echo Champagne lisianthus. I could see her mind racing through possible ways to use it in her wedding. Unfortunately, her bridesmaids had already purchased their red dresses, and the pink-and-cream flowers just weren’t going to work.
But her love-at-first-sight reaction wasn’t unusual. And when flower lovers find out how long lisianthus lasts in the vase, they are sold for life. Market enthusiasm is one reason most flower growers go to great lengths to grow lisianthus even though it isn’t the easiest crop.
“Lisianthus--man, I love it, but I don’t know why I plant it,” said Ralph Thurston of Bindweed Farm in Blackfoot, Idaho. “Given the cost, it doesn’t come close to other crops in profitability for me. I have pinched mine in the past, giving me enough stems to make it worthwhile--I don’t see how a grower can make it from a single stem, given the cost of Mariachis or even the lesser cost of the other lissies. And then there’s their susceptibility to every disease under the sun, diseases which my clay soil seems to be a very good harbor for. But there is nothing more beautiful, so I’m growing them again this year.”
Mel Heath of Bridge Farm Nursery in Cockeysville, Maryland, takes the same approach.
“I don’t think I earn much money off them but it’s one of the things I’ve got to have because certain customers like them,” he said. “And when they buy lisianthus they’ll think ‘What else can I buy?’”
Here in eastern Kansas, we grow lisianthus every year and consider it one of our most reliable and moderately profitable crops. Last year, for example, we sold about $3,500 of lisianthus from about 1,600 plants. The plants were purchased as plugs, 280 cells per tray, for $300 including shipping. That makes lisianthus much less profitable than zinnias, which produced $8,800 from about $200 in seed. But they are more profitable than tulips, which return about four times the bulb cost.
If you want to grow lisianthus at the highest possible return, choosing the right varieties is key. Here are some tips from growers around the country.
There are at least 15 series of lisianthus from which to choose. Some are similar, but bred by different companies. Some are bred for greenhouse production in winter and spring. Most Growing for Market readers will be growing in summer, so for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to the varieties that are commonly grown in the field or unheated hoophouse. Also, it’s too late to start the slow-growing seed now, so we’ll assume that you’re going to buy plugs and we’ll cover the varieties that are widely available from suppliers.
Singles or doubles? That’s your first decision. Doubles have more presence in a design because they have more petals. They also show less pest damage; for example, we have leafcutter bees that snip neat little half-circles from lisianthus petals. On the single varieties, a flower with a leafcutter bee cut is not saleable. On the frilly doubles, customers don’t even see the damage.
Some growers, though, much prefer the singles because of their willowy appearance, or because they simply grow better in their conditions. Bob Braverman of Friendly Farm in Iowa City, Iowa, grows the single variety ‘Ventura’ and says “I’m amazed at the quality.”
Leah Cook of Wild Hare Farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, grows the single variety Flamenco in addition to the doubles Echo and Mariachi.
“The Flamencos add some elegance; there is a great purple that is distinctly different from the blue in the Echo mix,” she said.
- ABC series - formerly known individually as Avila, Balboa and Catalina, different colors are available for different production times. Be sure to order colors that are bred for summer production.
- Cinderella - A new series that is supposed to bloom earlier than other doubles. •Echo - The oldest of the double series, with many nice colors.
- Mariachi - Quadruple flower form with the greatest number of colors.
The issue in choosing among varieties is that plugs of Cinderella and Mariachis cost about 50% more than the ABCs and Echos. For example, in one catalog, a tray with 210 cells costs $50 for ABC and Echo; the same size for Mariachi and Cinderella is $77.
“I started with Echo and then I switched to Mariachi and now I’m back to Echo,” Mel Heath said. “The difference in price for the plugs isn’t warranted because Echos have almost the same look and they grow just as well. I have some very sophisticated buyers and none of my buyers ever noticed the difference.”
Over the years, we have grown all of these series. Our first observation is that there really isn’t a lot of difference in bloom times when the plugs are all planted at the same time. The earliest we can set them out in the unheated hoophouse is mid-March. We plant them all at once because we want them to get established while the weather is still cool, as that leads to the longest stems. They all bloom beginning in late June, hitting their peak in July.
We have found that there is a lot of variation among plants within a series, even those of the same color, with some blooming early and some lagging a week or two behind. Also, because each stem has so many flowers, you don’t have to cut them all as soon as the first bud opens; you can wait until two or more flowers are open. So there is a natural spacing of bloom times that allows us to cut the first stems for a month. By then, the plants that were harvested first are starting to produce new stems, and that continues all the way through September. Some years we have three months of bloom with no interruption in production; other years we may go without lisianthus for two or three weeks while the plants are forming new buds. The second flush is always shorter, but still beautiful.
In cooler climates, there is more variation in bloom times based on the series. Maureen Charde of High Meadow Flower Farm in Warwick, New York, buys large Echo plugs and sets them out as early as possible – the first or second week of May. She buys smaller plugs of Mariachis at the same time, but bumps them up in the greenhouse and plants them outside three weeks after the Echos. In that way, she gets a full six weeks of top-quality flowers.
With so many colors available, it’s hard to choose. Mixtures are nice because they ensure that you’ll have at least some of every color if you get a special request. The blue rim or picotee is a great choice if you make bouquets; it goes with every other flower in the field. Yellow, lime green and lavender are novelties and therefore in demand, though the colors do tend to be less vibrant in really hot summers.
We have found that the Mariachis and Cinderellas aren’t bigger and better in every color. The Echo White is so similar to the Cinderella White for us that it doesn’t make sense to grow the more expensive one. The Echo Champagne is as full as any Mariachi, and that pink-and-cream color hasn’t been duplicated in any other series.
Our current strategy is to choose based on color, and to buy Mariachi or Cinderella only in the colors that haven’t been good in the less expensive plants. We buy Echo Lilac Rose, which is deeper than the Echo Pink; Echo Yellow, even though it looks more ivory in summer heat; Echo White and Champagne. We buy ABC Blue Blush and Blue Rim. And we spring for the mixture of Mariachis, so we can have a sprinkling of the unusual colors in the series such as lilac picotee, lavender and lime green.
Dave Dowling of Farmhouse Flowers in Brookeville, Maryland, who sells in Washington, D.C., grows many types of lisianthus and here is his assessment, based on consumer preference:
“Echo Pink was always the last to sell. The color seems washed out and people just liked the other pinks better. Echo Champagne is a favorite. Echo Lavender is a favorite, but grows a good 5” shorter than the other colors in the series. Any purple picotee sells well .”
Dave notes that the lisianthus color known as blue is really purple, although there are also some called purple that are a deeper royal purple.
“Mariachi Grande White, Lime Green and Misty Blue were good sellers,” he said. “Cinderella Yellow was a surprise. They were really tall and the flowers were nice and full.”
A new form of lisianthus is the spray type, which has small but numerous blooms at the top of the stems. Rosita has small double flowers. Picollo has small single flowers. Both are priced like Mariachi.
“Piccolo II Deep Blue, even though it was a single, was one of the top sellers each week,” Dave said. “ They had 8-10 blooms open and were so tall we had to put them in 5-gallon buckets. Rosita Blue (really purple!), Rose Pink, and White were all good. This is a smaller size flower head, but really full of petals with lots of blooms. The flower size is really nice for smaller wedding bouquets. While lisianthus buds look like rose buds, on this series the open flowers look like roses. I heard ‘Look, purple roses!’ many times this summer.”
Finally, the main single series for summer production are:
- Laguna – like the ABCs, these are bred for different seasons so be sure to choose colors that are labeled for summer.
- Ventura, Polestar, Heidi – listed by bloom sequence, these are available in numerous colors.
- Flamenco – bred for higher temperatures and light levels in summer.
The singles offer some colors not found in doubles, including a peach and a red rim.
Getting started with lisianthus
If you haven’t already ordered plugs, you’ll have to move fast. Suppliers need 8-10 weeks of lead time for custom orders. If you’re in the southern half of the country and want to plant them in early April or sooner, you may be able to find some plugs on availability lists. That’s what the plug suppliers call their excess production; it gets snapped up fast, so call a broker today to see if you can locate any. Growers in the northern half of the country who have longer, cooler springs, can still order in time for a May planting. Everyone should order next year’s plugs before the end of this year.
Plug orders from the major plug producers need to be placed through brokers. Here are three:
- Gloeckner, 800-345-3787
- Germania, 800-380-4721
- Harris, 800-544-7938
Recent research suggests that the best lisianthus flowers come from tiny transplants with roots that haven’t yet hit the bottom of the cell. Those aren’t available from most suppliers because shipping requires a fully rooted plug; otherwise, the plants get shaken out of the plug tray during handling. But starting your own seeds is another topic worthy of a separate article; we’ll get back to that this fall.
Lynn Byczynski is the author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, available for $20 to GFM subscribers by calling 800-307-8949 or mailing a check to GFM, PO Box 3747, Lawrence KS 66046.