Flower Growing, Chinese Style

China is the major supplier to the United States of most manufactured goods, and has recently become its dominant provider of apple juice. Will cut flower bouquets sold here soon sport “Made in China” labels? Based on a short trip we took to China with our Cornell colleague Dr. SushengGan in early December, 2010, we feel that Chinese production of cut flowers is unlikely to directly affect our industry.

Cut flower production in China is massive, and impressive. According to government statistics for 2009, cut flowers are grown on 110,000 acres, with a harvested crop valued at $1.28 billion. The major species grown are listed in Table 1, and are similar to the most important commercial flower species in this country. Currently, only 17% of cut flowers grown are exported, and these go primarily to neighboring countries such as Japan and South Korea.

Flower production in China takes place primarily in protective structures. Official statistics state that flowers are grown in 228,000 acres of greenhouses and high tunnels, but that includes potted plants as well as cut flowers. On our trip, we viewed lilies being grown in heated, glass-covered greenhouses as well as in solar-heated houses developed in China. The latter face south, have a high north wall of bricks or mud, and a curved greenhouse roof (covered with polyethylene) that is covered with straw mats at night (Picture 1). Although there may be a little supplementary heating, the sun is the major heat source, and production is practiced in these year-round, even in northern areas. Chinese growers also make extensive use of plastic-covered high tunnels, of a much simpler and cheaper design than found in the U.S. These consist of curved bamboo ribs covered with a single layer of polyethylene, ventilated manually by raising sides and opening ends (Pictures 2, 3). The high tunnels are particularly prevalent in southwestern China, in Yunan Province around the city of Kunming. We saw snapdragons, stock and alstroemeria in these houses, as well as a few roses.

Specific horticultural practices were interesting, and although we probably don’t have a full picture of “what really goes on”, here are a few you might enjoy. We saw a farmer irrigating (and fertilizing) his lettuce plants with a cup lashed onto the end of an eight-foot pole. He was scooping up water from a ditch outside his hoophouse, and carefully pouring it on his plants.  In Kunming, the Dutch have built a mini-Aalsmeer, complete with a reverse auction clock, carts, buyers’ tables, etc. But just down the road in the “traditional market”, we saw wholesale cut flowers being handled on long tables where customers could walk by and select the bunches they needed for the day’s work (Picture 4). We also saw people huddled around small fires, alive with black smoke from the plastics residue and wood scraps that were being used for a bit of heat. (We wonder about the postharvest effects of the smoke!) And what appeared to be 5 or 6 “clones” of boxes of Oasis Foam, quite possibly from local counterfeiting.

The Chinese people love flowers and fresh produce. The meals were loaded with many kinds of vegetables – we surely ate at least one or two new vegetables each day. Meals are diverse, heavy on vegetables and fish, and lesser amounts of beef, chicken and pork. Given that many of these vegetables were grown in hoophouses, it’s no wonder there are so many thousands of acres of them!
 The supporting services for cut flower producers appear to be good. We visited two universities (China Agriculture University in Beijing, Shanghai Jiao Tong University) and the Flower Research Institute at the Yunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Kunming, and were impressed with the active research programs in postharvest handling and breeding of new varieties. The Chinese federal and provincial governments are providing considerable funding to support these efforts. They are also subsidizing construction of conventional and solar greenhouses, according to an article in the February 2011 issue of FloraCultureInternational.com (p. 28).

So will we see Chinese flowers in U.S. markets? Not unless they can overcome the cost of a 12-hour airplane flight, and the lack of a production area where flowers can be grown and marketed year-round. Our main suppliers of roses, carnations, mums and alstroemeria are only 3 hours away by plane, and grow flowers on the equator, where there is no winter, and that will be hard to beat.

Bill Miller

Bill Miller is Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University. Contact him at [email protected]

Chris Wien

Professor

Chris Wien is recently retired Professor of Horticulture at Cornell University. Contact him at [email protected]