Valentine blooms: Roses are traditional, but freesias make lovely, long-lasting, bouquets

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 6th, 2015, by Cheryl B. Wilson.

Roses for your Valentine? How conventional. Why not surprise your love with a bouquet of an unusual flower that is also fragrant?

Freesias have long been used for perfume and to scent soaps and lotions. These South African beauties are delicate funnel-shaped flowers held on slender stems, with the wonderful ability to last in water up to three weeks. Note that hothouse roses seldom look good after 10 days.

The folks at LaSalle Florists in Whately have been growing freesias since the 1940s. They sell mixed bunches to local retailers like Whole Foods in Hadley, River Valley Market and State Street Fruit Store, both in Northampton, and the Old Creamery in Cummington. This year, LaSalle is growing 20,000 plants in the greenhouse.

“Every variety has a little different fragrance,” owner John LaSalle explained in an interview in his greenhouse last week. “One variety of white is very perfume-y. Another is peppery. Reds tend to be particularly fragrant.”

The flowers can be yellow, white, orange-red, apricot, pink or various shades of purple. The stems are about 15 to 18 inches tall and the sword-like foliage can grow to more than 2 feet. The flowers are borne in terminal clusters on one side of the tip of the stem.

They are elegant flowers, beautiful in mixed arrangements as well as on their own.

In Whately last week, it was warm and humid inside the greenhouse mostly devoted to freesias. Outside, snow was piled around the edges and had drifted so LaSalle had to shovel a bit to get inside. Long wide benches were filled with the freesia plants, most of them still in tight bud.

The bulbs planted in September usually start blooming by mid-January. This year they are quite late but, “These guys will be ready for Valentine’s Day,” LaSalle said. He attributed the late blooming to lack of sun during the fall and winter and the frigid temperatures in January. “The plants need a certain level of sun,” he said.

However, he said he’s glad the freesias are in a glass-paned greenhouse instead of a modern plastic-covered hoop house since the glass transmits light better. “This greenhouse was built in 1952, the year I was born,” he said.

A lucky mistake

LaSalle Florists started in the 1930s, when James LaSalle Sr. built his first greenhouse. After purchasing the Whately farm in the 1920s, LaSalle became interested in breeding gladiolus and dahlias. He learned that he could speed up the testing process by using a greenhouse. Instead of waiting two years to evaluate a new flower, he could do it in just one year.

The florist business grew from there. James LaSalle Jr. joined the company in 1948 so his son, John, has grown up in the business.

John LaSalle says he has always ordered freesia bulbs, or corms, from Europe, specifically from Flamingo Holland Bulbs. He used to buy new bulbs every year — up to 35,000 of them.

One year, however, the company sent a different variety of white and initially LaSalle was disappointed since he liked the former cultivar. He complained to his regional agent who came out and checked on the bulbs. When he saw the name of the variety, he told LaSalle he actually was fortunate. It was the newest and best white cultivar and LaSalle would be one of the first to grow it for sale.

The variety was called ‘Excellent’ and LaSalle said it lived up to its name. Now it is his favorite.

“It’s a big double-white with a nice sturdy stem and a wonderful fragrance. I’m a lucky guy.”

The variety was so good that LaSalle considered storing the bulbs and reusing them, instead of buying new ones each year.

“I talked to people at UMass about how to save the bulbs. It turned out to be fairly easy,” he said.

In its native South Africa, the freesia bulb endures dry summers during its dormant period. All a grower has to do is mimic those conditions.

“They need to be at 90 degrees for 120 days,” LaSalle said.

LaSalle plants his saved bulbs — and some new purchases — in the greenhouse in September. The plants start slowly during the fall months when LaSalle simply has to water twice a week. He doesn’t even heat the greenhouse until December when the plants start active growth. Then, he said, “They like to be at 60 degrees.”

Heating a greenhouse is expensive but the freesia greenhouse needs less fuel than those that must be kept at 70 degrees or warmer for plants like poinsettias.

LaSalle started a second group of bulbs after the poinsettias were finished in December. They will bloom in March or April.

Usually the plants finish blooming in April and he pulls out the bulbs and lets them dry for a few days. Then he stores them in plastic crates at 60 degrees for another few weeks. Four months before he wants to plant them, he increases the temperature to 90 degrees, imitating the conditions of their native dormancy.

Lessons learned

LaSalle said when his grandfather first grew freesias in the 1940s no one understood the dormancy issue. The LaSalles grew their freesias for the arrangements sold by their own floral business. They simply tucked the bulbs along the edges of the greenhouse benches where they grew snapdragons.

In the 1980s, scientists realized the importance of the summer dormancy and recommended different treatment for the bulbs. They also started breeding a variety of colors, including bicolors. Some of the names are intriguing: Red Passion, Sunny Beach, Delta River and Apricot Mountain, along with Excellent.

Most of John LaSalle’s freesias now are grown from his saved bulbs but he usually buys a couple thousand new ones to test new varieties.

This year LaSalle is only growing 20,000 freesia bulbs, down from 35,000 in past years. The reason is that his wholesale broker, Montgomery Florists of Hadley, went out of business last year and he hasn’t found a new agent to sell the flowers wholesale. He said he is grateful to CISA (Community Involved in Supporting Agriculture) for helping local growers of flowers as well as vegetables.

“CISA has been a big promoter for us and all growers. Without them it would be a struggle,” he said. “It’s still a struggle,” he added.

Growing freesias is almost as easy as storing them, LaSalle said. The main chore is staking since the stems are very thin and require support to prevent flopping.

LaSalle showed his clever method of staking: A cat’s cradle grid of wire is placed over the greenhouse bench once the bulbs are planted. It is attached to narrow flat stakes that are notched at various heights. LaSalle said the stakes are recycled tobacco slats. During the growing season, as the plants get taller, he gradually raises the wire grid to a higher notch on the stake.

Freesias do need fertilizer but LaSalle doesn’t believe in heavy doses.

“According to the book, you should fertilize heavily every three weeks. Personally, I think they do better when we grow them lean,” he said. So he gives a light dose of food every 10 days to two weeks. He added that freesias like well-drained soil that is dry during the early growth period and moister once the flowers form.

Each bulb produces just one flower stalk but that stem may have two or three branches. For the florist, the first cut of the main stem is the most valuable. It can have up to 10 or 12 flower buds per cluster. The second cut of the lower branches will have only four to seven buds.

After the freesias are harvested, bedding plants go into the benches and when they are emptied the benches are cleaned and fresh soil is installed to start the freesia cycle again.

LaSalle said many customers like to come out to Whately to buy their freesias and take pictures in the greenhouse. The store charges about $6 for a mixed bunch of five stems of freesias. A 10-stem bunch may sell for $7 to $10.

While there was mostly green foliage last week, soon the greenhouse will be a wondrous place filled with fragrant blooms from blue to yellow to red and that favorite double-white, ‘Excellent’.