They have no common name, but everyone recognizes these flowers when they burst into bloom in the spring. Easily the most magnificent of all our fall-planted bulbs, ranunculus blossoms are to the Southland what tulips are to cold-climate gardeners.
More publicity is given to tulips--even here in the Southland where tulips are notoriously poor performers. Veteran gardeners, however, ignore the tulip hoopla and bulb displays in garden centers.
Instead, they head straight for brown, claw-like ranunculus tubers because they know that these weirdly curved claws will produce crepe-paper blossoms coveted by gardeners and bouquet makers throughout the flower world.
Ranunculus flowers can be cultivated only in mild, cool climates such as coastal Southern California. Small wonder, then, that the world's largest grower is located on rolling hills along the coast in Carlsbad.
With more than 100 acres planted in ranunculus, the Carlsbad fields produce 90% of this country's ranunculus supply and over 60% of the world's crop.
Jim Frazee, a third-generation grower, and his family have been growing flowers in the Carlsbad area for more than 60 years. Although the flower crops are rotated, the ranunculus fields are usually visible from Interstate 5 in March and April, attracting thousands of flower lovers, photographers and sightseers every year.
The sandy soil and foggy climate create ideal growing conditions. But another important factor contributes to the worldwide reputation of the Carlsbad tubers--the development of the Tecolote strain.
Through purposeful selection, the Frazee family and its marketing/research partner, Davids & Royston Bulb Co., have developed a strain that sets the world standard for quality ranunculus. Tecolote tubers yield double-rose flowers with layers of petals as thick as feathers on parakeets. No other grower has been able to duplicate this form or achieve the consistent quality of the Carlsbad production.
Ranunculus tubers are susceptible to soil-borne fungi, so commercial growers propagate them from seed. Because seed-grown flowers don't always produce offspring identical to the parents, quality control is an extremely important task.
One special section of the fields is devoted to stock plants, the creme de la creme of the millions of ranunculus tubers grown there. Divided by color and separated by plastic panels to prevent unwanted cross-pollination, these stock plants grow under the watchful eye of Arnold Ellis, research and development director for Davids & Royston.
Cruising the rows of magnificent blooms, Ellis yanks out seemingly perfect plants for a variety of innocent faults: color variation, semi-double form instead of fully double, irregular foliage, imperfect shape, small size.
"I'm intensely concerned with upgrading the strain," Ellis said.
His most recent research has concentrated on development of a new salmon color. Ready for introduction in 1991, this color range will include salmons, pinks and orange pastels. Because ranunculus plants are not clones of their parents (like tulips and other vegetatively propagated flowers), the colors vary, representing a range of colors.
In the spring Ellis watches over the seed plants zealously.
"Our biggest problem," he said, "is the theft of plants and flowers at night--apparently by flower industry people."
Security guards now patrol the fields at night, but visitors are allowed to explore selected areas during the day. As many as 20,000 visit on spring weekends, taking pictures and stopping to buy bouquets at the corner flower stand.
Besides producing tubers, the Carlsbad ranunculus fields now provide cut flowers that are shipped around the world. But the future is somewhat cloudy. Frazee looks across his blooming fields at elegant homes and rapidly spreading condominium projects and wonders how much longer his flowers will be able to occupy this prime real estate.