RALEIGH — That which we call a rose, even when crossed with a homely celery plant, would smell as sweet.
At least that's the hope of scientists at N.C. State University.
With Valentine's Day in full bloom - psst, Romeos: the No. 1 day for flower sales is today - it's fitting to consider how a rose is a rose is a rose, even when it's undergoing genetic engineering to remain rosy just a tad longer.
The N.C. State team, led by horticulturists John Williamson and John Dole, is working on several fronts to extend the life of the cut flower, which can fade in a week if not properly cared for.
Given that a dozen long-stem lovelies cost upward of $50, putting more bloom on a rose could eliminate a big drawbacks to their appeal: their fleeting fancy.
"We want less waste," Williamson said.
One of the most promising efforts involves wedding a certain celery quality into the rose gene pool - a beauty and the beast pairing.
"Celery is definitely marrying up," Dole said.
What celery lacks in good looks, however, it makes up for in hardiness, and one gene in particular gives it special powers against fungal infections that wilt many plants, including roses.
The team isolated the gene and is now working to engineer it into roses.
"Petal blight is a really, really serious problem with roses, and it shortens vase life," Williamson said. "But if we give the plant an extra dose of celery gene, it should be more resistant."
Those efforts are under way, but Williamson and Dole said the celery-rose hybrid is likely to take several years to produce. Roses are notoriously finicky about what they mix genes with.
"Some plants are just easier than others," Williamson said.
Prolonging the blooms
In the meantime, the N.C. State scientists have gotten grants from growers and are working to help find ways of extending the blooms. The flowers - most of which are now grown in Colombia and Ecuador - do best if they're kept in coolers and given an immediate drink of water after being cut.
Then they're shifted to a bath of water, an acidifier, an antimicrobial and sugar. The sugar replaces what the leaves produce during photosynthesis, giving energy to the plant so it can maintain the flower.
Growers recently discovered that adding fructose to the sugar mix is like youth serum, extending the blooms for several days. Many florists provide a little packet of this sugar mixture with the roses.
A graduate student at N.C. State found that regular 7-Up, Sprite and other clear sodas work just as well, Williamson said, because they contain the much-maligned high fructose corn syrup.
He said much about the group's work on roses and other flowers is sometimes questioned.
"People often ask why we're not working on food crops," Williamson said. "But the enjoyment of good flowers is good for you. I'm convinced that by having flowers in your life, people live a longer, more fulfilling life."
"We're pretty devoted to flowers," Dole agreed.
So what of a few thorns.
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