Woody Ornamentals for Cut Flower Growers
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
© NCAT 2002
From top to bottom:
Nandina domestica; Magnolia stellatachrysanthemiflora; Prunus mume rose bud.
Woody ornamentals can be some of the best plants for extending the cut-flower growing season and filling out bouquets. This publication covers getting started in growing woody ornamental plants, including what to plant, harvest and post harvest strategies, and marketing channels. It also offers sources of further information.
Table of Contents
- Getting Started
- What to Plant
- Harvest and Postharvest
- Marketing Channels
- Additional Resources
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"Woody cuts" or "woodies" come from perennial shrubs, trees, or woody vines. Flowering branches, foliage, fruits, pods, and stems are gaining wide use in creative floral design. If you are a cut-flower grower, woody ornamentals can be some of the best plants for extending your season and filling out your bouquets.
In addition to season extension, woody ornamentals have a number of other advantages. They generally have few pest problems and can be grown on land unsuited for other crops. Once established, these perennials generally don’t require as much care as annuals. They can serve as attractive landscape plants, as habitat for beneficial insects and birds, and as windbreaks.
Disadvantages include higher establishment costs and a wait of a year or more for the first harvest. In addition, although many cut-flower growers are already growing woodies, there is little information about the best cultivars, harvest times, postharvest treatment, pricing, and markets.
Because you will be establishing perennials, weed management will be a special concern. You can decrease weed problems by covering the planting bed with landscape fabric, and then covering the fabric with an organic mulch such as wood chips.
Field planting of hollies.
Fertilizers and soil amendments should be worked into the soil before planting. This is especially true for phosphorus, which is not very mobile in the soil. Fertility requirements for most woodies are similar to those for orchard trees and shrubs, but additional phosphorus helps to produce longer shoots.
Irrigation is especially important at planting time and when the plants are small. As plants become established, irrigation may no longer be necessary.
If you want your woody ornamentals to serve as a windbreak or as part of your landscape design, space them according to recommendations for those purposes. However, if you are planting them only to make cuttings, tight spacing is better. This causes stems to grow long and straight. For most woody cuts, plants are set 2–6 feet apart within rows. But be sure to leave enough space between rows for field operations, such as mowing a walkway cover-crop or harvesting branches. Grower Elizabeth Dean found that double rows of plants staggered on 4- to 6-foot beds with 6- to 8-foot sod paths between the beds accommodate her mowing equipment. (1)
Pruning to encourage growth of many long stems differs from pruning for a landscape specimen. In a typical plant, the dominant apical or tip bud prevents the development of the dormant buds or side shoots. If you remove the tip bud by pruning or pinching, other buds on the stem will develop. If you prune the apical bud from the plant when it is small, it will branch low to the ground and produce long, usable stems. If you prune a larger plant, you must cut it back hard to get a flush of long stems. A general rule when harvesting woody ornamentals is to leave at least a third of the foliage on the plant when you cut. Once the plants have gone dormant, however, some species, such as Buddleia and Caryopteris, can be cut to the ground. (2)
When selecting plants to grow for woody cuts, look for species that:
- Have the ability to grow well in your climate, and regrow rapidly after severe and frequent pruning.
- Produce numerous stems borne over a long period of time.
- Produce stems at least 18" long (upscale florists like long stems).
- Retain flowers, berries, or foliage well.
- Have a long vase life.
- Produce harvestable branches early in the plant’s life.
- Extend your season from forced flowers (forsythia, fruit trees) in the spring; to berries (beautyberry, bittersweet) or bright foliage (oaKB] in the fall; to red berries and/or green foliage (hollies, pine, juniper, magnolia) for Christmas.
Boxwood, dogwood, forsythia, holly, hydrangea, jasmine, lilac, pussy willow, and corkscrew willow have long been popular in the floral trade. The table below, Woody Ornamentals Suitable for Cutting, lists other possible choices. Consider growing a mix of best-sellers and unusual cuts.
The proper time of harvest for flowering branches varies. Forsythia, quince, and fruit blossoms are best cut when the buds are very tight; color need not be showing. Lilac, rhododendron, Kalmia, deutzia, camellia, witch hazel, hibiscus, Mahonia, spirea, Pieris, and viburnum are among those that should be cut just as they are starting to open. The suggested time to cut butterfly bush is when half the flowers on the inflorescence are open but before the open flowers have started to fade. Acacia, hydrangea, leonotis, Hypericum, Cornus, and Erica species should be cut when nearly or fully open. (3)
Forcing blossoms is a way to have an early supply of flowers that would normally bloom later in the season. It also allows you to have flowers available on specific dates for special events.
Many ornamental trees and shrubs set their flower buds during the summer for bloom the following spring, go dormant in winter, and come out of dormancy when exposed to warmth and moisture. Late winter, the best time to prune deciduous trees and shrubs, is also the best time to cut branches for forcing.
Cut branches for forcing when the outside temperature is above freezing—they will be more pliable and make a better transition from cold outdoor temperatures to warmer indoor temperatures. Set the branches in buckets of warm (100° to 110°F) water with a floral preservative dissolved in it. Start forcing at 50°F; higher temperatures at the start will blast the buds. After a couple of weeks, you can speed up the time to flowering by moving the buds to a room as warm as 75°F, keep it slow at 50°F, or halt it by placing the branches in cold storage at 35°F. (4)
Pussy willow, flowering quince, forsythia, and fruit blossoms are among the most common woody plants cut for forcing. Suitable branches can be cut from other willows, filberts, beeches, birches, fothergillas, witch hazels, eastern redbud, lilacs, magnolias, rhododendrons, flowering quinces, and red maple. (5)
More information on forcing can be found in the book Floriculture by John Dole. (6) He gives details on lilac and forsythia, two species whose production and forcing requirements are well documented.
Branches that are chosen for their beauty simply as bare branches—such as redtwig and yellowtwig dogwood—are cut when dormant. The dogwood stems will be green during the summer, but change color during cold winter weather. Do not put the cut stems into water, but store them dry. They will last for months.
Branches chosen for their ornamental fruits are generally cut after the fruits are mature. Bittersweet should be cut before its pods open; the vines are stored dry. American beautyberry should be cut when mid-stem berries are colored. Green fruits do not color after harvest. (7)
Lane Greer and John M. Dole of North Carolina State University offer these comments:
For the most part, the same marketing channels used by cut-flower growers are used by woody-cut growers. These include farmers’ markets, pick-your-own, and retail florists. However, there are some differences. Many farmers’ markets and most pick-your-own establishments are closed from late fall to early spring, which is a great time for harvesting and selling many woody cuts such as pussy willow. A few retail florists may not be interested in woody cuts. Working with berried plants like Callicarpa, for instance, can be challenging. Those florists who tend to create original designs will demand new flowers, different colored stems, and unusual plants to lend their work a taste of the uncommon.
Lynn Byczynski’s excellent book The Flower Farmer (2), has a chapter devoted to woody ornamentals. Byczynski also publishes the popular monthly journal Growing for Market. This publication is not targeted specifically toward flower growers, but it usually has at least one article on field-grown cut flowers.
Anyone who is considering growing cut flowers (woody or otherwise) should invest in a copy of Allan Armitage’s book Specialty Cut Flowers. (8) Armitage devotes a section to woody cuts, in which he describes production and handling as well as propagation techniques, field culture, greenhouse production, and postharvest techniques.
Other growers are another good source of information. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) (9), enables growers to share production and marketing information with each other. The ASCFG produces a membership directory that contains information about individual growers and the varieties of flowers they produce. The directory is free to ASCFG members and is for sale to non-members. Other member benefits include a quarterly newsletter and a listserv where members share questions and answers of all kinds. The ASCFG also hosts an annual conference.
The American Nurseryman (10) includes advertisements for many plant sources. It also advertises many useful books, and often has articles on woody ornamentals that are suitable for cuts.
Byczynski, Lynn. 1997. The Flower Farmer. Gardener’s Supply. 224 p. Available for $24.95 plus shipping and handling from:
Growing for Market
P.O. Box 3747
Lawrence, KS 66046
Fulton, Will. 1990. Harvesting and shipping woody ornamentals. p. 45–49. In: Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Inc. (ed.) Grown With Pride in the U.S.A., Proceedings of the 3rd National Conference on Specialty Cut Flowers, September 23–26, 1990, Ventura, CA.
Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers
Judy Laushman, Executive Director
M.P.O. Box 0268
Oberlin, OH 44074
American Nurseryman Publishing Co.
77 W. Washington Street
Chicago, IL 60602
Byczynski, Lynn. 1993. Woody ornamentals: Money from trees? Growing for Market. March. p. 1, 4–5.
Ciensinki, Susie. 2002. Pussy willows. Organic Gardening. January–February. p. 19–21.
Dean, Elizabeth. 1995. Woody plants for cut flowers. p. 10–20. In: Bryan Hayes (ed.) Speakers’ Notes, ASCFG National Conference. Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Oberlin, OH.
Eisel, Mervin C. 1988. Deciduous woody plants for the florist trade. p. 57–64. In: Commercial Field Production of Cut and Dried Flowers. Center for Alternative Crops and Products, St. Paul, MN.
Fulton, Will. 1990. Harvesting and shipping woody ornamentals. p. 45–49. In: Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Inc. (ed.) Grown With Pride in the U.S.A., Proceedings of the 3rd National Conference on Specialty Cut Flowers, September 23–26, 1990. Ventura, CA.
Jenkins, David F. 1991. Woody plants as cut flowers. p. 68–74. In: Proceedings of the 4th - National Conference on Specialty Cut Flowers. Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Oberlin, OH.
Shenk, Nancy and Bob. 2002. Forcing branches. Fine Gardening. January–February. p. 43–45.
Simeone, Vinnie. 2001. Cutback shrubs: Great potential for cut flowers and foliage. The Cut Flower Quarterly. July. p. 21–22.
Bir, Richard E. 1992. Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 192 p.
Dirr, Michael A. 1998. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses. 5th Ed. Stipes Publishing LLC. 1250 p.
Fisher, Kathleen. 2000. Taylor’s Guide to Shrubs. Houghton Mifflin. 441 p.
Poor, Janet Beakin and Nancy Peterson Brewster, eds. 1996. Plants That Merit Attention: Volume II—Shrubs. Timber Press.
Wilson, Jim and Guy Sternberg. 1995. Landscaping with Native Trees. Chapters Publishing Ltd. 288 p.
Woody Ornamentals for Cut Flower Growers
By Janet Bachmann
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Tiffany Nitschke, HTML Production
This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014