Trialing Native, Herbaceous Perennials as Cut Flowers and Foliage for Sale to the Wholesale Floral Industry

Final report for FNC21-1261

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $9,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Seeley Farm
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Seeley Farm was founded in 2011 by myself, Alex Cacciari, and my husband Mark Nowak. We are a two-person operation with some seasonal help. We grow a diverse mix of certified organic vegetables, cut flowers, nursery plants and raise broilers. We market our products through our local farmers’ market, an on-farm stand, and regional wholesale accounts. Our farm has 12 tillable acres.


My project will trial 20 native, herbacious perennial plants in the field for their value as cut flowers and foliage. Trial plants will be assessed on their productivity as well as their marketability when sold wholesale direct to florists and distributors. The project will culminate in a mini-marketing campaign to promote the plants that performed well and educate growers and florists about their value and seasonality.

Florists have many options when it comes to sourcing stems; the industry is dominated by product that is shipped internationally. Michigan’s cut flower season is short, and our crop selection limited. Growers are always looking for new varieties to catch the attention of fickle buyers. 

Florists already know that locally-grown product has the advantage of being fresher than stems that are dry-shipped. This project will cultivate another reputation that locally-grown flowers are more unique than other wholesale flowers. Florists value new and unique stems that are also sturdy and reliable to integrate into their designs. Native perennial cut flower crops can offer just those kinds of unique stems. 


Project Objectives:
  1. To produce a list of native plants that have value in the wholesale floral industry. The list as well as our production methods will be shared with other flower growers via 2 Field Days, a workshop and conference presentation.
  2. To promote these plants within the floral industry via a mini-marketing campaign. We will share marketing materials with our regional florists and distributors via an industry event held at the end of the project timeline. The materials and event will aim to educate florists about these native crops and other perennial crops, how to use them, and what their seasonal availability is.


Materials and methods:

Trial plants: 

Lobelia siphilitica

Euphorbia corrolata

Filipendula rubra

Asclepias tuberosa

Solidago “Fireworks”

Physostegia virginiana

Monarda punctata

Eryngium yuccifolium

Asclepias “Ice Ballet”

Eupatorium “Gateway”

Penstemon “Blackbeard”

Asclepias “Cinderella”

Iris versicolor

Lupinus cultivar

Rudbeckia fulgida 

Gentiana cultivar

Apocynum androsaemifolium

Polygonatum odoratum 

Scirpus pendulus

Monarda punctata

Chasmanthium latifolium

Pycnanthemum muticum

Bed prep in spring 2021.  All plants were planted into landscape fabric with burned holes. For rhizomatous plants, plastic will be burned/cut wider as plant growth expands over time. Plugs were purchased in early may 2021 from nurseries and planted to various locations on the farm, depending on plant needs. Due to late ordering (orders placed February 2021, right after SARE grant decision) many species were unavailable as plugs for May planting. Planting occurred May-September 2021. One species, polygonatum was not available in '21 and will be planted out April 2022.

Stems will be harvested weekly and marketed through Michigan Flower Growers Cooperative (MFGC). Stems will be evaluated according to the following 5-part metric:

  1. Stem count per plant. 
  2. Average stem length. 
  3. Vase life in days.
  4. Stem value in the marketplace. Determined by weekly sales records. This is an imperfect measure, as many of these plants will be unfamiliar to florists and they will not order them. As a secondary measure I will gift sample bunches of each plant to 4 florists and survey them.
  5. Length of harvest season in weeks

The marketing campaign consists of: 

1) Professional photography of the plants and stems in arrangements.

2) Graphic design to use the photography on the MFGC website, and design two print materials: postcards for each successful plant from trial, and a 16” x 20” print calendar with photos 

3) MFGC Native Flowers Promotion Event.

The print calendar is essential to the campaign. The biggest barrier to florists purchasing perennial varieties is their season is short and the buyer isn’t aware of when it’s available. A simple calendar of availability florists can hang on their studio wall will be a powerful promotional tool for these new crops. 

Please refer to this Google Drive folder "Field/Production" photos for pictures of the bed establishment and progress for 2021

Research results and discussion:


As anticipated, no yields were achieved for 2021. Due to the lateness of my plug orders (February 2021), plants arrived between May and September 2021, based on availability. Nonetheless, most every species planted has taken and rooted well and should overwinter well and be poised to take off and produce harvests in 2022. The exceptions were the eryngium and asclepias tuberosa. As a back-up plan, I've purchased seed for several of the varieties to grow out my own replacement plugs this spring for any plants that did not survive winter.

Some species produced precocious flowering in their first year. These included lupinus, scirpus, solidago, chasmanthium, pycnanthemum, gentian, and eupatorium. The flowers produced were cut to send plants' energy to the roots (and for my own enjoyment in a vase). This kind of short first-year growth from perennial plugs is to be expected. They were a welcome teaser of what's to come in 2022.

Please refer to this Google Drive folder "product photos" for pictures of harvested stems in 2021


Of the 24 plant varieties trialed, 9 either failed to thrive, or survived but did not supply sufficient harvest material to evaluate. The failed varieties and reason for failure are indicated in the file titled "On Farm Survey of SARE Trial Plants"

131 bunches total were harvested and distributed to florists through the Michigan Flower Growers Coop. Harvest began 5/13 with baptisia and blue flag iris and ended 9/14 with Northern Sea Oats.

Results were measured by 2 surveys. The first was conducted on-farm by myself. See the included file "On Farm Survey of SARE Trial Plants"

On Farm Survey of SARE trial plants

With this survey I recorded and scored each plant according to it's 1) harvest window, 2) vase life, 3) growth habit, 4) yield, and 5) market value. Market value was pulled from florist survey responses when available, but in some cases estimated by me based on conversations with florists. The top 7 "winners" of the trial according to this survey were:

Northern Sea Oats, Wooly Bulrush, little bluestem, mountain mint, amsonia, baptisia, and solomon's seal. While the 2 grasses, wooly bulrush and little bluestem ranked low in "market value" their high scores for growth habit, yield, stem length and harvest window pulled up their score very high.

The second survey was requested from florists receiving free bunches. I received 20 unique florist survey entries, representing 10 of the 15 plant varieties distributed. Results for that survey can be found in the included file "Native Cut Flower Project Florist Survey (Responses)"

Native Cut Flower Project Florist Survey (Responses) - Form Responses 1

With this survey I asked the florists to rank the varieties on 1) color 2) stem strength 3) stem length 4) vase life 5) form/shape 6) overall aesthetic and 7) seasonality. The top 6 "winners" according to this survey were:

Wooly bulrush, Joe-pye weed, little bluestem, solomon's seal, spotted bee balm, amsonia.

Florists were very divided on both amsonia and lupine. While color, form and aesthetic of these were all spot-on, some florists were bothered by lupine's hollow stems and short vase life, and amsonia's tendency to wilt.

Going forward, I feel confident recommending the following native plants to cut flower growers to add to their crop list:

Northern Sea Oats, Blunt Mountain Mint, Baptisia, Joe-pye weed - these are all easy to establish and have great market appreciation.

I can recommend the following native plants, with some caveats:

Wooly bulrush - this is a brown flower and a grass so make sure you have a market for it.

Little bluestem - a sometimes "weedy" looking grass so make sure you have a market appreciation for it.

Amsonia hubrichtii - for flowers, address wilting and educate your customer, much easier to harvest and market for foliage.

Lupine - if you can get over the challenge of perennialization, hollow stem and short vase life, it's a stunning seasonal flower.

Solomon's seal - awesome foliage plant for shade with excellent market appreciation, just very slow to establish.

Spotted bee balm - a very unique flower form but tends toward brown/dusk color so make sure you have a market for it.

The following plants I cannot currently recommend:

Solidago and rudbeckia - while these are very hardy and productive plants, the market did not show interest in these more common "ditch weeds".

Blue flag iris - the harvest timing is extremely specific and the vase life short. the pods are of interest but only for unique designs. Very strong grower in wetlands.

Asclepias - these proved too tricky to treat post-harvest due to their milky sap. The short vase life makes them only useful for event work.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

22 Consultations
8 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Workshop field days
3 Other educational activities: MI Small Farms Conference 2/25/23, Industry mixer event to release marketing materials scheduled 3/7/23, regular Instagram posting

Participation Summary:

300 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

I held the first Field Tour and orientation on 10/31/21 for 2 hours. 5 members of the MI Flower Growers Coop were in attendance. I shared with them the narrative of the SARE grant, as well as methods for production, marketing plans, and a list of sources for native plugs and seeds. We walked the trial plot and discussed the landscape fabric technique for weed suppression and observed the young plugs. There was not much to see since the plants were mostly dormant, but we had a good conversation around siting the plants for their preferred soil conditions, i.e. wet/lowland and dry/upland. I had little to share in the way of findings since I won't see any harvest really until 2022. I anticipate the 2022 field days to be more formal.

I developed with the graphic designer a postcard-sized fact sheet about the project with a QR code link to a new page on our farm's website about the trial. It also linked to a survey for florists to submit feedback on individual varieties. I distributed 50 postcards between May and Sep 2022.NCFP-6-NO writing (1) NCFP-6-writing (1) 

I held the second Field Tour on 7/28/22 for 2 hours. 8 members of the MI Flower Growers Coop were in attendance. We observed the plants in their productive stages in the trial plot. I fielded questions about varieties, production techniques, plant material sources, and shared preliminary harvest data for the earlier varieties.

I developed a print availability calendar in January 2022 (soon to be online and interactive) with the graphic designer featuring plants from the trial as well as other perennials that bloom in the Upper Midwest. The calendar is intended to be an education tool and resource for florists as they are planning their weddings and events to know what is in flower during the season in order to order and use more natives and perennials. 75 copies have been printed and will be mailed this week to regional florists. Seasonal_Guide_05 (1)

I will attend the MI Family Farms Conference in Kalamazoo, MI 2/25/23 to present a slideshow presentation of my trial results with other farmers and industry professionals. NCR-SARE Native Cut Flowers.pptx

During the harvest period of 2022 from May-October, I had a photographer document each plant in the trial. We are in the process of selecting and editing those photos to develop a 3rd and final marketing material, a "fact sheet" for each successful plant from the trial. This will be a 2-sided postcard-style document for each plant with one side targeted towards growers, including growing requirements, notes about growth habit, harvest stage and post-harvest handling. The other side will target florists with info about the flower's harvest window, what else is blooming at the time (companions), vase life, handling treatment, and images of sample arrangements using the bloom. These fact sheets are in development and will be finished by end of Feb 2023 in time for the industry mixer event to share with florists. Fact sheets, in addition to the seasonal calendar, will be integrated in both the site as well as site.

The MI Flower Growers Cooperative will host an "industry mixer" event on 3/7/23. Both growers and florists are invited and I will be sharing the print materials from the graphic designer: seasonal calendar, survey intro flyer, and plant fact sheets", as well as my slideshow presentation and results of the trial.

Throughout 2021-22 I posted 18 times on Instagram, sharing photos of the trial plot, some of the harvests, and info about some of my favorite native plants for use as cut flowers and foliage. While I have around 2,500 followers, each post reached approximately 200 unique accounts, and resulted in a at least 24 direct communications from other flower farmers and florists inquiring about the project.

Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers Society reached out to me for an interview in December 2022 for an upcoming episode of her Slow Flowers Podcast. She will be including native plants in her influential 2023 Floral Industry Trends Forecast. You can listen to the podcast here:

Episode 598: Alex Cacciari of Michigan’s Seeley Farm on trialing native perennials for the floral market

Learning Outcomes

75 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

This project proved for myself and other cut flower growers the viability of certain species of native plants for use in floral design. The impact of these results are twofold. One, is to increase grower awareness and inplementation of native plants in their farm landscapes and crop mix to diversify their revenue streams and add to the native flora of their land. The second is to increase buyer awareness of, and as a result consumption of, native perennial cut flowers and foliage to support the growers' endeavors.

With the knowledge that some of these species have value as a marketable cut flower crop, our farm plans to add more native plants for harvest. Through the education events and marketing materials I have developed, this project inspires growers to plant more natives for cutting, while leaving 30-50% for pollinators and other fauna to benefit.

With our buyers' increased awareness of native plants in floral design, this project will encourage and develop market interest in native cut flowers, thereby increasing revenue for small farms.

I have developed a list of recommended plants from this trial to share with growers and buyers. I want to emphasize that the primary objective of increasing our propagation of native plants is to benefit the ecosystem, including pollinators, other fauna, and to keep the populations of these species high in their native range. The marketability of their stems is an added bonus that I hope this research will encourage others to plant more natives. However, I maintain with growers that a native plants plot should only be harvested at a max of 50-70%, depending on the size, to leave flower and seed heads for their benefit to pollinators and birds. These plants cannot be treated like a "normal" cut flower crop where every stem is harvested, otherwise the project's goal is moot. I believe that a restricted harvest will be accepted by growers because native plants are a very care-free and hands-off crop to grow when planted in the right spot. The growers will perceive any sales of stems as high-profit once plants are established because of their fuss-free nature. While a labor intensive flower crop like lisianthus or dahlias obviously require a 100% harvest to maximize profitability, these native crops are not the same.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 New working collaboration

I believe this trial is just scratching the surface of native plants that are useful for floral design. Because it's a 2-year grant, I steered away from woody plants like shrubs and small trees because they could not develop in time to evaluate. However, there are numerous native woody plants I think eligible for evaluation. Also, the 9 species I failed to evaluate are still on my list for future trialing. As I was working on this project, a number of growers reached out to me with their own favorite natives for cutting, many of which are not represented in my trial. Native plants in the floral design industry are a blossoming trend and interest. Debra Prinzing of Slow Flowers Society reached out to me for an interview because she will be including native plants in her influential 2023 Floral Industry Trends Forecast. That podcast episode will be released sometime in Feb 2023. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.