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Legislature offers $100,000 to solve caladium problem

— When Don Bates moved here in 1978, Highlands County had 36 caladium growers. Now there are 10.

Industry consolidation is one reason why, Bates said. Jane Polston thinks grassy tubers are another.

Grassy tubers produce too many shoots, hence the name.

“It reduces yields,” Polston said. Polston, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has been studying the problem on and off for 23 years.

This year, the Florida Senate included $100,000 in the state budget to help find a solution. The House agreed, but the line item must get past Gov. Scott’s veto pen, however.

Caladium growers make money by planting thumb-sized pieces of caladium bulbs.

“If you think of a caladium bulb like a potato, it has eyes. We cut them up and plant the eyes,” Bates said.

At the end of the season, growers dig up what has grown into whole tubers, keep what they need for next year’s seeds and sell the rest.

However, grassy tubers, discovered in Florida in the 1980s, has reduced production, Polston said. The disease also stunts the leaves, which are greener and not as colorful. Bates says that hurts too, because pink and red are the most popular colors.

“We are trying to identify the causal agents,” Polston said. “There is probably more than one, and we’re also working on ways to address the problem.”

If the disease isn’t controlled, Polston said growers are “going to have a hard time producing caladiums. They can’t make a living off of it.”

Planted tubers must grow to a certain size, Polston said. “If they don’t do that, there’s nothing to sell. Over time, the tubers will get smaller and smaller and smaller.”

“It is a disease, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Bates said. “It’s fairly widespread. We’ve been working it for 12 years, and we’ve got it down to management, taking those out of the field that we think cause the problems, but it does wipe out particular varieties from time to time.”

Plants and animals mutate, but Polston doesn’t think grassy tubers are mutations. “I think it came from somewhere else.”

Bates agrees. Highlands County growers are well acquainted with that scenario. The Asian psyllid is killing citrus trees, and citrus canker was probably imported from Southeast Asia or India.

The tiny pathogen is likely to be something viroid, maybe a nucleic acid. Researchers are close, Polston said, but she hasn’t put her finger on the cause yet.

“One of the problems is that we don’t know how it’s transmitted,” Bates said.

More than 90 percent of the world’s caladiums are grown in Lake Placid. Therefore, if researchers can’t solve the problem, Polston said, “We could lose the caladium industry.”