LANDISVILLE, Pa. — There were 991 cultivars of 124 ornamental plant varieties on display recently for a crowd of about 300 growers, marketers, retailers, suppliers and others with a keen interest in getting pretty flowers, interesting foliage, and the occasional good-looking vegetable onto the decks and patios of Pennsylvania consumers.

The crowd was at the July 27 flower trials field day at Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Landisville, where Sinclair Adam Jr. guided attendees through an hour-long tour in which he talked about the pros and cons of many of the varieties. A Penn State Extension educator, Adam’s home office is in nearby Lebanon, but from the beginning of May through the end of October, he spends his days either at SEAREC or on the road.

Flower trials have been a Penn State staple since 1933. Originally held at State College, they were moved to Landisville some years ago. The trials are one of the most ambitious such studies in the U.S. Adam works closely with SEAREC director Alyssa Collins, who oversees a three-person technical staff that facilitates 80 or so research projects every growing season. Big as it is, the flower trials are just one of those projects.

The annual field day is scheduled for when the growing season is going full bore. About a third of the attendees are there, according to Adam, to look at the plants, network with others in the industry, and absorb the information they get from the day of programs. Another third come to the field day mainly to pick up the continuing education credits they need to maintain pesticide applicator licenses. Others may come for the education, workshops and to learn about the flowers, since the trials are open to the public.

This year for the first time, there was a trade show featuring the offerings of 14 seed and nursery suppliers.

Asked to name some of the field-day standouts, Adam pointed out the new varieties of climbing sweet potato vines on display for the first time this year. He liked container-grown tomato varieties that were also new versions this year, such as Midnight Snack, a cherry-sized black tomato from PanAmerican Seed. He said industry researchers are working hard to develop container-grown vegetables, and mentioned another tomato favorite, Little Birdy Yellow Canary from Sakata Seed of America.

Adam mentioned some of the wonderful petunias in their new colors. He also told the crowd about a petunia scandal earlier this year, which caused some innocent growers to scrap several of the petunia varieties they were growing in good faith. They did not know some of the dark red, deep orange and purple petunias’ color was from a genetically engineered (GE) corn gene that had been inserted into petunia germplasm as part of an experiment in Germany.

In May, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services had learned about the illegal GE petunias. According to the USDA, since then it has been “working in close cooperation with breeders and growers represented by the American Seed Trade Association and AmericanHort to ensure the implicated GE petunia varieties are withdrawn from distribution.”

APHIS regulates the introduction (importation, interstate movement, or environmental release) of certain GE organisms.

Adam said the German petunia gene experiment was conducted in a tightly controlled environment, surrounded by chain link fence with locked gates. Somehow, the altered material escaped its experimental confines, found its way to unknowing breeders and propagators, and wound up being featured in the petunia lines of a number of prominent ornamental plant suppliers.

A plant scientist in Finland, curious about the intensity of the new colors, tested a sample, found the corn gene and alerted the Finnish government earlier this year. The Finns were ruthless in their reaction to the discovery, and ordered all the genetically engineered petunias destroyed. The USDA took a more measured response to the news and asked the industry to take voluntary measures to rid the market of what became known in the industry as the “Frankentunia.”

According to Adam, while the GE petunias produced no apparent damage at this time, there are strict rules around the world regulating genetically engineered plant material. Even a small exception to APHIS regulations or other rules could create a serious breach and raise havoc in the plant science community.

Plant science methodology was very much on display at the SEAREC field day. A carefully designed study was undertaken to determine the influence of individual cultivars on pollinator behavior by Emily Erickson, a graduate student in Penn State’s entomology department. She studied both annuals and perennials at the trials. Each study involved five cultivars of each of five genera placed as randomly as possible in rows within the field trials. For example, there were five cultivars of lobularia: Frosty Delight, Snow Princess, Wonderful Deep Purple, Easter Basket Yellow and Crystal Mix. The same method was planted for zinnias, marigolds, pentas and lantana. Erickson and an undergraduate student gathered data by observing and counting the pollinating insects’ actual visits throughout the season.

Erickson’s presentation on her study wrapped up the workshops at the field day. She said similar studies had been done previously that were useful, but the data gathered by others had limited practical application and did not get down to the cultivar level, as hers did.

One might think “a zinnia is a zinnia is a zinnia” as far as your average honey bee or bumblebee might be concerned, but Erickson found that is just not so. And, there’s more than one way to count a pollinator visit. Erickson and the undergrad did not count flybys where a passing insect might just be checking out a plant. Nor did they count as a visit a simple layover on a flower. To qualify as a pollination visit, the insect had to be totally involved with the plant and to actually contact the plant’s reproductive parts.

Pollinator-cultivar data will be collected at the site over a period of a few years, but preliminary figures show that insects definitely prefer some cultivars over others within the same genus.

Erickson said this information will be of use to the ornamental plant industry as it continues to respond to growing consumer interest in everything environmental, including ways to attract and care for pollinators.

Dick Wanner is a reporter for Lancaster Farming. He can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com.

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