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Scientists changing the colour of flowers

19 September 2005

Scientists changing the colour of flowers

Two Auckland scientists are working on research they hope will create new colours of a flower successfully created for the export market.

West Coast Orchids of West Auckland, run by doctors David and Nancy Beck, have received government support for their latest research project which follows earlier scientific innovation that transformed a small bromeliad specimen into a long-stemmed flower with valuable commercial returns.

The power of the export success with Red Dragon has resulted in the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology investing $517,000 through its Technology New Zealand suite of schemes. The investment will be used for further research to develop new flower colours and pest control measures.

The unique, brilliantly red, single spike bromeliad, Red Dragon, is believed to be the first of its type in the world. Scientific innovation was used to transform a small specimen into a long-stemmed flower with valuable commercial returns.

The Becks’ company, West Coast Orchids, already exports its production of 100,000 stems of Red Dragon each year. Dr David Beck says new colours like orange, yellow and purple spikes would complement Red Dragon, and he estimates that the additional shades will expand exports to around a million stems in five years. New Zealand’s fresh cut flower exports are worth approximately $40 million annually.

West Coast Orchids is already gearing up for its display at this year’s Ellerslie Flower Show in November.

The colour change programme is in its infancy. It involves taking single cells to grow a new plant in a process called somaclonal variation.

“This has never been done with this genus of plant before and certainly not with this species.

“To encourage variation we will induce mutations in the plant populations. It isn’t genetic transformation or gene transfer but involves using traditional laboratory methods to produce the colour change,” says David Beck.

Owners of small potted bromeliads are lucky if their plants produce one flower a year but West Coast Orchids’ plants flower prolifically, which will aid the Becks’ latest scientific venture.

David Beck says overseas markets will buy more Red Dragon if there are other colours in the range. The company’s main markets are in North America but new destinations are expected with the new colour options.

The Foundation investment also covers investigation of innovative pest control methods which will help the company avoid the risk of trade barriers, like those experienced by New Zealand apple growers shut out of the Australian market because of the risk of the disease fireblight.

“We don’t want trade barriers in our way or for our flowers to be offloaded for fumigation because that delays their arrival at market.

“We don’t want to spray at all and if we can develop a flower that is pest free and requires no, or minimal, pesticide applications, our market access will be assured,” he says.

“It will also optimise our returns. It is about learning to grow as profitably as possible.”

David Beck says the three year research programme is already producing promising results. The company has a collection of tiny new plants growing from single cells. They are so tiny that about 200 – 300 of them fit the size of an average fingernail.

The scientific work is a success story for both the West Coast growers and Foundation, which invested almost $280,000 in the earlier scientific research to help the scientists improve the bromeliads stem length to meet export requirements.

The Becks have also received support of $50,000 from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) under its new market promotion and development initiative. Client Manager, Jeannine Walsh, says the NZTE support complements the Foundation’s research funding by working with the company to develop market initiatives to commercialise the results of the scientific innovation.

ENDS

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