When you think of decorative holiday plants, you might buy traditional poinsettias. But have you ever considered a caladium at Christmas?
University of Florida scientists want to add caladiums, known for their beautiful foliage, as an option for seasonal occasions.
That’s music to Bob Hartman’s ears. Hartman runs Classic Caladiums LLC, a nursery in Avon Park, and he’s excited about the opportunity to grow and sell caladiums during the holidays. Hartman has enlisted the aid of UF/IFAS plant breeder Zhanao Deng to research caladium bulb storage.
“For the past 23 years, we’ve done everything we can think of to expand the use of caladiums,” Hartman said. “To this end, an area we considered was to attempt a seasonal/holiday market — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day — with caladiums and to supply Southern Hemisphere markets.”
Right now, Florida caladium growers send their bulbs and plants to all parts of Florida, across the United States and to about 40 countries globally. In the United States, caladiums go mainly to the Gulf Coast and mid-Atlantic states and California. Across the world, they go primarily to Canada, Europe and Japan.
But Florida growers want to explore markets in Southern Hemisphere nations such as Brazil, South Africa and Australia, said Deng, a UF/IFAS professor of environmental horticulture. Among his many specialties, Deng develops new caladium varieties.
“To produce beautiful caladium plants for winter holidays, growers and nurseries must have quality caladium bulbs to plant from October through December,” said Deng, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
To capture these new opportunities, caladium bulbs need to be stored for about 11 months after they’re harvested, with minimal weight loss and rot and overall good health. They also must produce attractive plants in containers. This long storage period presents a challenge for Florida growers.
“Florida growers store their caladium bulbs in their barns or warehouses with minimal temperature control,” Deng said. “In the summer, temperatures in those facilities can go up above 90 degrees, which dries up caladium bulbs and limits their postharvest life.”
To identify varieties suitable for longer-term storage and late-season plant production, Deng and his research team are screening 12 commercial cultivars in a greenhouse, including ‘Florida Moonlight’ and ‘Radiance.’
It’s still early in the research. Scientists are still experimenting to see which caladium varieties will be marketable for the late-fall and winter seasons.
Additionally, Steven Sargent, a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences and his research team are storing varieties of caladium bulbs for up to eight months under commercial, ambient temperatures and under two refrigerated temperatures at the UF Postharvest Horticulture Laboratory in Gainesville.
They’re assessing bulb weight loss and incidences and severity of Fusarium tuber rot prior to planting in pots. Then Deng’s team studies how long it takes for the bulbs to sprout and the quality of the plants produced from these bulbs.
The warm storage temperatures at the nurseries contrast to those at the Gulf Coast REC, where scientists store caladium bulbs treated with three postharvest chemicals, in an air-conditioned storage room at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 percent relative humidity prior to growing them out in pots in the greenhouse.
“Selection of proper caladium cultivars will allow Florida growers to take advantage of these new marketing opportunities, and give consumers another choice for a holiday plant,” Deng said.
Classic Caladiums LLC donated the bulbs for this research project, which is funded by a Specialty Crop Block grant from the USDA and administered through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.