Alyssa Hilligoss - Floriculture Research: Getting Paid for Something you Love
Growing up around greenhouses it comes as no surprise that Alyssa Hilligoss is happiest when she’s surrounded by the sweet, soft beauty of flowers. Raised a Purdue fan from Sharpsville, Indiana, Hilligoss had no doubt she would attend Purdue University, and horticulture seemed to be a natural course of study. At first, Hilligoss was unsure what part of horticulture she wanted to major in, but after some debate she chose Horticulture Science with a concentration in Plant Science.
Now a junior, Hilligoss says that Floriculture is her forte. She was the 2013 recipient of the Purdue Agricultural Centers Research Experience (PACE), an award to promote undergraduate research, and the Laurenz Greene Summer Research Scholarship. The Laurenz Greene award allowed Hilligoss to participate in a dahlia experiment over the summer. During the California Spring Trials (formerly Pack Trials), which involved the industry’s most prominent Floriculture specialists, it became apparent that there were many issues with the growth of tubers on dahlia roots. Hilligoss says normally this would not be a bad thing because consumers would be able to dig up the tubers, keep them over the winter, and plant them again in the spring, but when the tubers begin to take energy from the plant not as many flowers are produced. The basis of the experiment, overseen by Hilligoss at Purdue, simply involved the photo period length (amount of light) the dahlias were exposed to and if it would affect the growth of tubers and how fast the plant would flower. Seven different cultivars were used, each one with a different light treatment. The result, all seven dahlias displayed different tendencies. Only one of the cultivars did not develop any tubers. The downside, it flowered very fast, lasting only two weeks. With inconclusive data Hilligoss feels confident that more experiments will follow.
The work she did over the summer with the PACE grant involved cut flowers. Overseen at Meigs Horticulture Research Farm, Hilligoss compared how well cut flowers grew in a high tunnel (hoop
house with plastic around it) verses a field plot with no protection. Four beds of flowers were placed inside the high tunnel and four beds were placed in the field plot. It was discovered that all of the flowers planted in the high tunnel did much better than the ones grown in the field plot. “The stems were longer and thinner, the flowers nicer, which are all better for florists,” Hilligoss said. The project was for the benefit of seed companies. The research conducted allows them to recommend the best way for their consumers to grow their product.
During the trial of the cut flower experiment, which included harvesting the flowers, Hilligoss developed a passion for flower arranging. “I absolutely love it. That’s my happy place,” she enthused. After the summer Hilligoss realized how much she enjoyed research and working in Dr. Roberto Lopez’s lab. She worked closely with Dr. Lopez and presented her findings of the dahlia experiment titled, “Using Photoperiod to Control Flowering and Tuber Formation of Dahlia,” with him at the 2013 Indiana Flower Growers Association (IFGA) Conference in West Lafayette, Indiana.
At this point in time Hilligoss says she is unsure what she will do when she graduates in May 2015. With her newly discovered love of flower arranging a career as a florist is not out of the question. Research is also a primary consideration; however, she is positive she does not want to run her own greenhouse. Although her parents own a wholesale greenhouse called Country Raisins in the Kokomo, Indiana area, Hilligoss says it is way too much work and constant stress. “The growing profit is based on the weather,” she emphasized, “and things are out of your control.” She prefers the controlled environment of the research experiments she managed over the summer. No matter what she decides it is clear that Hilligoss has a promising future in Horticulture.