By Lisa Marun.
A Story About Family, Science, and Hard Work
Now on the must-do list for San Diego visitors and locals alike, the Flower Fields began as a partnership forged in the mid-1990s between Mike Mellano and Paul Ecke Jr. and continues to awe visitors. However, the idea that eventually led to this partnership was sown years before when Edwin Frazee and his wife, Mabel, noticed that uninvited “visitors” to Luther Gage’s Oceanside ranunculus fields next door would enter the fields after hours and conduct their own private “tours” through the carpeted maze of bright blooms. Occasionally, the couple would camp out on the hill east of the fields and, at the opportune moment, engage the sprinkler system on the unsuspecting interlopers.
At the expense of missing out on free evening entertainment in the future, it occurred to Edwin that there might be a lucrative business on the horizon. They began seeding and cultivating ranunculus. Later Frazee’s son Edwin moved their growing operation to the current site of the Flower Fields. When Edwin decided to retire, he became a consultant to Mellano and Company, which now plants, harvests, and farms the site.
From the early days of single-petal yellow and red giant Tecolote ranunculus, today’s blooms are double and offer more color variety.
The Science and Expertise Behind Those Giant Tecolotes
Tecolote ranunculus are grown at both Mellano’s San Luis Rey farm and at the Flower Fields. Visitors at the Flower Fields are able to tour the area where cut flowers are grown. Additionally, there are separate selection fields where each of the colors is grown in isolation for seed. These flowers are the future of the Flower Fields ranunculus, and the plants are scrutinized and criticized to no end before only the crème de la crème are selected for future sowing at the Mellano’s San Luis Rey farm.
This season, the partnership took on a key initiative to systematically improve the Tecolote lines by bringing on world-renowned breeder Ruth Kobayashi to lead the effort. Ruth has teamed up with Mellano Farm Manager Juan Paz and Head Grower Jess Williams. In addition, a group of San Diego Master Gardener volunteers were enlisted to assist Ruth with the selection of plants to be used in future breeding.
Although one would normally consider ranunculus bulb plants, Ruth says that the fields are seeded “Because the economics of it makes sense if you’re going to cut flowers. If you’re going to do bulbs, it’s different.” While the plants in the selection fields are judged based on a half dozen or so criteria (including color, height, double petals, and seed quantity), what may not meet the cutoff here could very well be an excellent plant in the cut fields. Pointing out one ideal white ranunculus that has not produced seeds, she provides an example of this distinction. “We really want 100% of [the cut field] flowers to be like that. It’s kind of a dead end for the next generation, but I don’t care because I’m going to reseed every year.”
Ruth’s many years of plant breeding experience, backed by her horticultural education (she has an MS from the University of Hawaii and a PhD from the University of Maryland) are crucial assets that enable her to be a science-based guide for the Mellano and Master Gardener selection team’s work. According to third-generation Mike Mellano, “Science is a huge part of farming and this project. New challenges show up every day and we couldn’t do what we do without a sound footing in science.”
This reliance of science is instrumental not only for current challenges, but Mellano notes that it also serves as a guide for the future of the ranunculus. “We continue to digest the mountains of scientific information that comes out all the time so that we can stay on top of new findings that might help us to continue to get better.”
And, at least for now, getting better is a goal that is not pursued lightly because until now, in the words of Head Grower Jess Williams, “We’ve never found the perfect plant.”
Did you know?
Ranunculus means “little frog” in Late Latin
More than one ranunculus? Your choice: ranunculus, ranunculuses, or ranunculi
Ranunculus asiaticus (Persian buttercup) are native to Asia Minor
YellowSingeRan and TodayDoubleRans (side by side in a box, YSR on the left): From the early days of single petal yellow (left) and red Giant Tecolote ranunculus, today’s blooms are double and offer more color variety.
JPazJWilliamsRKobayashi: Juan Paz and Jess Williams are led by Ruth Kobayashi in a project that aims to sow the seeds of the future for the Flower Fields.