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New Crops News, Spring 1994, vol. 4 no. 1

Productive Shelterbelts

Decorative branches from woody perennial shrubs are becoming extremely popular for use by the florist industry in floral arrangements. Trends in floral design have increased the demand for branches from a number of shrubs with decorative flowers and fruits, as well as branch form and color. A study is underway under the leadership of Bruno Moser, head of Purdue's Department of Horticulture, to develop a sustainable system to produce economic shoots of a number of plant species including the Salix caprea (pussy willow) and S. matsujdana tortuosa (corkscrew willow).

Pussy willow is a large (8-12' high), multistemmed perennial woody shrub with attractive flowers in early spring. It has been used in landscapes for years, and its branches are often found in floral arrangements during the months of March through May as a signal of the spring season. Popularity of the pussy willow has outstripped supply, and the availability of high quality branches is limited.

Large scale growing of this new crop has been shown to be feasible on marginal wet areas. The crop becomes an economically viable filter strip between agronomic crops and waterways and streams running through farmland. Plants are grown 6' apart in rows with rows 10' apart to facilitate access by equipment. The filter strip approach utilizes three rows of plants occupying a 50-60' wide strip of land parallel to watercourses. The result is an environmentally sound planting on marginal land which absorbs runoff from adjacent agricultural fields and limits contamination of surface watercourses from soil and agricultural chemicals.

Branches are harvested in February when most farmers would have time to devote to this new crop. Shrubs are pruned to within 18" of the ground. The harvested branches are trimmed, graded into appropriate lengths, and tied in bundles of 50 each. Markets are primarily wholesale florists, but limited sales can be made directly to individual retail florists in a grower's area. Results indicate that each plant will produce between 60 to 80 branches per plant each year (about 50,000 shoots per acre). Research efforts are now being directed towards forcing systems for branches and other postharvest techniques to broaden the market window and provide added value in the form of longer shelf life. Decorative branches for the florist trade offer new entrepreneurial opportunities for those with marketing skills who are looking for a niche crop in which most of the work is done during the winter and early spring.