Research grows student's zeal for flowers

By Taylor Sigman

Junior horticulture science major Alyssa Hilligoss holds a flower from one of her plants.

Photo by Taylor Sigman

​Alyssa Hilligoss conducted her own research experiment last summer. The junior horticulture science major from Kokomo, Ind., enjoyed watching her plants grow and then bloom into beautiful flowers. ​Full-size image (286 KB)

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​After harvesting flowers more than four hours in the hot summer sun, Alyssa Hilligoss wiped her brow, took a long drink of water and began to pack up the flowers to haul back to campus. She was always excited about her harvest and felt accomplished after a long day of work.

​The junior horticulture science major from Kokomo, Ind., spent her summer conducting a self-led research experiment. The goal of her research was to find the optimal way to grow flowers for florists.

​"For the experiment, I had two treatments," explained Hilligoss. "The first set of flowers was grown outside in the field, and the second was grown in a high tunnel."

​A high tunnel is simply a sheet of clear plastic placed over a semi-circular metal structure. A high tunnel does not change the temperature or amount of sunlight; its main purpose is to prevent damage from wind and rain.

​"I grew seven different species of flowers," Hilligoss said. "The seed companies want to figure out how to tell customers to grow the best flowers. This experiment showed that growing in a high tunnel has definite advantages."

​Besides the obvious advantages of protection from the weather, flowers grown in a high tunnel had longer stems and more desirable flowers, Hilligoss explained.

​"Florists want long stems on their flowers so they have more options for their arrangements," Hilligoss said. "They don't want stem length to limit the size of their creations."

​Lisianthus, a white flower with lots of ruffled petals, was Hilligoss' favorite species in the experiment. Hilligoss learned that lisianthus are fairly expensive when she brought some back to campus for Mary Lou Hayden, horticulture collections manager and one of Hilligoss' instructors. Hayden was impressed with the quality of flowers and excited to have them available, Hilligoss said.

​The research took the entire summer to complete. Hilligoss began growing in the spring at Meigs Farm, about 20 miles south of Purdue's West Lafayette campus.

​"I had to make the drive out there and water every day until the plants got established," Hilligoss said. "It was worth it to see my plants growing and developing each day."

​She set up an irrigation system to make watering easier, but she still had to make sure all of the plants were getting adequate amounts of water and that the system was working properly.

​As the summer wore on, the plants became established and Hilligoss reduced watering to every other day. While she watered, Hilligoss would examine her plants for any insect damage and diseases. She was pleased to have minimal issues with either.

​"I did another experiment on a different species of flower and had a lot of issues with bugs," Hilligoss said. "Some flowers are just finicky and it can be difficult to tell why they aren't growing well. I was lucky not to have those issues with this experiment."

​When the flowers from her experiment bloomed, Hilligoss was surprised at how long it took to harvest them all.

​"I had one species that grew in a giant bush," explained Hilligoss. " I was harvesting more than 200 stems on each of the eight plots. Late in the summer, when all of the plants were flowering, it would take an immense amount of work to get the job done."

​All that time yielded beautiful flowers and strong results. She is proud that all her hard work paid off. The fact that she conducted this research on her own was especially rewarding. Prior to this experiment, Hilligoss worked for graduate students in the lab of Roberto Lopez, associate professor of horticulture. She enjoyed being in charge for a change.

​"This was all mine," explained Hilligoss. "If I didn't water, it was my problem; if I killed my plants, it was my problem. I couldn't blame it on anyone else."

​Although Hilligoss sometimes felt overwhelmed by the work, she still found time to share what she had grown. When Hilligoss brought the flowers back to campus, she would set them outside the horticulture lab for anyone to take. She also made a few arrangements herself.

​"One of my favorite classes has been flower arranging," Hilligoss said. " I could sit in there and make arrangements all day."

​Hilligoss' interest in flowers began when she was just seven years old. Her parents began operating a greenhouse.

​"It's so much work, but I just love the flowers," Hilligoss said. "I would help with anything in the greenhouse. My mom called me an assistant manager in training."

​Although Hilligoss is uncertain what the future will hold, she is certain that she wants to find excitement in her career.

​"As long as I find work doing something that I love, I'll be happy," she said. ​