SAN REMO, Italy: From humble beginnings in July 1976 to 40 years of steady growth and blooming results, it’s Happy Birthday to the Sanremo-based Istituto Regionale di Floricoltura (IRF), the Regional Institute for Floriculture! FloraCulture International sat down with IRF director Ms. Margherita Beruto to find out about the research station’s history, accomplishments and future plans.
Founded July 2 1976 by Liguria’s regional authorities, IRF is predominantly involved in national projects and has served a multitude of research groups and growers from across Italy. Today the station has 2 ha, 30 staff and their annual budget for next year is expected to be €1,700,000. The region contributes €700,000 for day-to-day operations of the institute. Additionally, it benefits from €600,000 in EU grant-aid.
To have access to these funds, IRF researchers collaborate with members of the private sector on commercial cut flower farming research in areas such as plant pathology, plant breeding and innovative technology.
A prime example of this public/private partnership is IRF’s cut Helleborus breeding programme in which IRF has teamed up with the cream of Italy’s leading Helleborus businesses. The year 2014 marked the launch of a series of in-vitro propagated, interspecific Helleborus hybrids that are suited to the mild winters and warm, dry summers in Liguria. ‘Nikita’, ‘Domingo’, ‘Guapa’ and ‘Francesco’ (named after Pope Francis), are four hybrids that come in different shades of white and crop stages. Currently they are being trialed at 10 flower farms, using different cultivation techniques in the open field, in greenhouses or shade halls. Planted in 2014, the 5,000 IRF Helleborus produced their first, modest cut flower crop last year. The first stems of ‘Francesco’ and its brothers and sisters yielded €0.40 to €0.50. Particularly promising is the 10 to 15 day vase life.
From the very beginning , there was strong community support for the station, with people actively searching for solutions to the unique challenges associated with commercial flower growing in Liguria. There’s no doubt that at the time, flower growers were using carnations as a cash crop and the market was flourishing with a strong appetite for fresh cut flowers and potted plants at home and abroad.
One of the first scientists to collect data at IRF in 1987, Dr Margherita Beruto, who graduated from the University of Genua in Biological Sciences in 1997, is very familiar with the development of the research station.
She remembers how carnations occupied pride of place initially. “We were following the trends in production, and the main crop in the1980s was carnations. At the time, there were already, and still are, a sizeable number of local breeders selling their varieties all over the world. The IRF provided them support investigating plant pathology, particularly viruses, performing all detection tests and rescuing varieties through meristematic apex. We opened a purpose-built plant pathology laboratory that is still up and running. This laboratory carried out research on a very dangerous pathogen, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp.dianthi. To this day, IRF continues performing resistance tests of varieties of the two most common pathotypes (2 and 4) of this disease. Carnation cuttings are grown in-vivo on filtrates of the fungus in different concentrations, checking the resistance of each variety. So, for carnations there was no direct breeding at the IRF but rather a service to local breeders to improve their mother stock plants.”
Daisies cutting a dash
In the late 1980s, the growers from the Albenga plain, whose specialty was vegetable crops, decided to try their luck with the emerging floriculture industry. “Back then, our institute was studying Argyranthemum (daisy) varieties for use as cut flowers. In the absence of a local Argyranthemum breeder the IRF started creating its own varieties. One of the selections featured a very compact growth habit, flowering profusely and had big potential as a potted plant.
History did the rest with IRF’s ‘Camilla Ponticelli’ variety that caused many Albenga growers to swap their vegetables for ornamentals. The 1990s saw a huge expansion of Argyranthemum production with patio pots produced in their millions.
Today demand for standard marguerite daisies remains strong with Albenga producing in excess of 10 to 12 million patio pots/ year. “Meanwhile, we have obtained many new varieties, even though the strongest export article for the Albenga Plain nowadays is potted aromatic herbs. Around the same time, IRF, working together with the plant health authorities from Sweden, assisted daisy exporters in finding a solution for Liriomyza miners”, said Beruto.
Mini mouse ears
The 1990s marked dramatic changes in production which severely impacted IRF’s function. “Until then the major production area was Sanremo where predominantly cut flowers were grown,” outlined Beruto. She added, “But the Albenga growers switched to flowering potted plants which resulted in more intensive contacts with the Albenga growers, even if we have always tried to support both areas. In Sanremo, the main product became cut foliage, and we helped growers find new items from countries with a climate similar to ours such as Australia and New Zealand. Recently, we helped other growers with in-vivo propagation techniques to re-obtain the desired shape of ‘mini mouse ears’ in Eucalyptus gunnii, that had been lost through seed propagation.”
In cut flowers, the IRF assisted Ranunculus breeders in setting up an in-vitro cloning protocol that provided a big boost to Ranunculus production not only in the region but in the world at large. Currently Biancheri’s Success line ranks among the leaders in this niche market.
The IRF also carries out research on succulent plants with cooperation from private firms such as Cactusmania and Asseretto. “We are creating some innovative genotypes for them. In this competitive sector you have to introduce novelties to distinguish yourself from your fellow growers in Northern Europe that often can produce at a more competitive level”, commented Beruto.
She continued, “For the Albenga area, IRF is still breeding new varieties of daisies, with a very compact growth habit that can be obtained naturally (without PGRs) and with new colors.”
Another interesting IRF programme is the development of natural products for Integrated Pest Management derived for instance from the by-products of Lavandula. “This is a new important development and we are collaborating with other European research institutes as well as getting financial support from the EU/COPA (Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations) ”, explained Beruto.
Strong community support
She emphasized that from the beginning , there was strong community support for the station. “When we started, our research was perfectly in line with demand from local growers and breeders. Now it is more important than ever to develop programmes together. A crucial point, being a public institute, is financing our projects. This can only be achieved by working with the region’s most important plant businesses.”
IRF frequently works on a contract basis with growers and breeders. “They can help us with the commercial aspects while we are good at focusing on research. We also have clients outside Liguria and abroad, but the main aim is creating the local industry more opportunities locally. The royalties we get from our varieties are also vital to our financing.”
An interesting development in the region is that apparently young people are returning to agriculture after many years. “New forms of business are in development, for instance combining agriculture and tourism, two of the main industries in our area. In any case, the IRF will continue to be a resource and support for floriculture in our region, said Beruto.”
Since its interception, IRF has seen how Liguria’s ornamental horticulture industry changed dramatically with cheap imports, bureaucracy, challenging trading conditions and high energy prices creating huge obstacles for growers.
“The IRF has not only given the industry an exceptional legacy of data spanning forty years, but we are poised to play a pivotal role over the next forty years in addressing key issues affecting the floral industry,” concluded Beruto.
Floriculture in Liguria: quick facts
According to the 2011 ISTAT census of agriculture, Liguria hosts 20,121 firms, 38% of which are located in the Imperia province (Sanremo area) and 26% in Savona province (Albenga area). The floricultural firms comprise approximately 20% of the total, 4,271 firms for an area of 2,673 ha. According to the census, the province of Imperia had 73% of floricultural firms in the region with 68% of the area.
According to a more recent local census, in 2014 the number of firms in the Imperia province decreased further to a total of 2,329 (5,9% less than in 2013).
However, the floricultural firms are still more abundant than those for grapes and wine (96), olives (853) and other crops (760). In Savona province floricultural firms number more than 1,000, with a slower decrease than in Imperia.
All the firms are ‘micro’ size; the average area is 0.58 ha each. Cut flowers are still predominant in Imperia province, while potted plants are mostly grown in Savona (around 120 million pots/year). Near the French border there is significant production of succulent plants (20 million pots/year).
2010 ISTAT figures of typical Ligurian crops
CARNATION: 16 ha with an annual production of about 19 million stems.
DAISY: about 10 million pots/year, mainly sold to the German market; daisy cut flowers are minimal with 4ha and about 4 million stems
CUT FOLIAGE (including green and flowering, cut fruit and leaves): in Savona 170 ha (open field) and around 2 million pieces (85% green cut foliage). In Imperia, 1,756 ha (open field and greenhouse) and about 600 million pieces
RANUNCULUS: 135 ha with about 150 million products stems in Imperia
HELLEBORUS AND OTHER ‘NEW’ FLOWERS: Helleborus is not yet widespread, only samples. Interesting growth for the peonies that in the ISTAT data for 2010 were not accounted for. The institute is also working on ANEMONE (micropropagation): Imperia covers 24 ha (ISTAT data in 2010, but it is growing) and 63 million stems.