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Top Four Cut Flowers Series: Lisianthus

Over the last few years, I think #lisianthus has been the flower MOST intriguing to our customers. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “I’ll take the roses,” and then lifted a bouquet of lisianthus out of the bucket at the farmers market. When I tell them that these flowers actually aren’t roses, that I don’t even grow roses, I think they genuinely doubt me for a moment!

Elegant and proud, lisianthus can easily stand alone in a #bouquet, or be mixed with other stems. And in terms of vase life, they get the gold. Reminiscent of roses, but without the thorns. Does it get any better?!

Unfortunately, getting a lisianthus plant to the point of harvest is something of a challenge. Not impossible– but definitely among the more difficult things to grow. Here in Wisconsin, lisianthus must be grown as an annual, as they won’t survive our winters. Most people who grow lisianthus as #cutflowers order them in as plugs. Plugs are basically starter plants, or seedlings. And while each plant typically costs about a quarter, if you are growing hundreds (or thousands), and then add shipping costs, it can soon turn into quite an investment.

To alleviate that a bit, I decided to try my hand at starting some lisianthus from seed. (I usually order a few trays of plugs as well, just in case my own seed-started lisianthus go awry!) Seed costs a few dollars a packet, so if you have the time, set-up, and ambition, it can be a good option.

Because lisianthus grows so slowly, I start my seeds in January. I use #soilblocks, and surface sow each seed (meaning that I do not cover them with soil). It’s very important to mist them a couple of times a day so that the seeds don’t dry out during germination! That first year, I started about a thousand seeds this way. I learned quickly that in order to have success with lisianthus, there was something that I needed, that I didn’t have enough of.

PATIENCE. The first thing you need to have to grow lisianthus is PATIENCE.

And the second thing you need to have is MORE PATIENCE.

(At right, what my lisianthus soil blocks looked like two months after sowing. These were actually the biggest ones I ever had at the 2-month mark!)

Lisianthus can take over two weeks to germinate, and then when they do, they are so incredibly tiny and miniscule, that you have to squint to see them. I was literally standing over my trays with a magnifying glass! Then when they do germinate, the rate of growth is so incredibly slow, that sometimes I wonder if they are growing at all.

At about the 3-month mark, I “bump them up” which means I move the little seedlings into a bigger cell tray, with more space for each one to grow. It ends up being a total of four solid months of babying them-- watering, watching, and BEGGING-- before I decide they are big enough to move outside. By now, it is April, and even though I know that the timing is right, (lisianthus are pretty tough when it comes to the cold), I always struggle to transplant these little flower babies to my outdoor beds at a time of year when frost and chilly nights are still prevalent.

But outside they go, with a row cover over them just like a blanket. They put on a lot of root growth during the cool of spring, so getting them outside at this point is important. One year, we had a snowstorm in late April. I remember waking up to snow on the ground, just certain that months of hard work were down the drain, and that those lisianthus seedlings were dead. But when I lifted the row cover and peeked underneath . . . they looked just as happy as the day before.

Each year, as the weather warms, and other crops take off, I admit that I kind of forget about lisianthus for a bit. Soon, it is June, and other than weeding the bed a few times, they don’t demand any attention. (They’re kind of like those friends who asked to stay a week or two at your summer cabin. When you finally go up to the cabin a month later, you realize . . . they’re still there!?) Lisianthus takes up space in your garden for the long haul of the season. And they don’t really look all that different in June than they did in April. But, if you’re patient . . .

In July, all of a sudden, lisianthus begin to stretch, and soon you see buds forming. In August, the show begins, and I am reminded that now- 8 months later!- all the work was worth it. Customers appreciate a flower that holds in the vase, and lisianthus is the champion when it comes to #vaselife. I typically tell people to expect them to last 10-14 days if taken care of. One time, I had someone tell me that she still had a stem of lisianthus four weeks later! That’s not the norm— but WOW!

Photo credit at left: #elizabethcarpenterphotography

Every season, I sow at least double the number of seeds that I think I’ll need. As I’m still an amateur, I lose about half of them before harvest– they either don’t germinate, don’t survive plug stage, or succumb to fusarium wilt, a fungal disease common in lisianthus in the field. I have grown them successfully both outside in the field, and inside our unheated high tunnel. There is still lots for me to learn– but worth all the energy. Once you try them, you can’t forget.

Have you ever grown lisianthus? Would you like to try? Comment below!

My current dilemma: I have 1700 lisianthus seeds that will be sown in less than two months, and I still haven’t figured out where they will be planted next season (crop planning/rotation is a huge jigsaw puzzle every year!) One thing’s for sure— I’ll definitely make room for them!

Be well!



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