By Kristin Hackler
As an unexpectedly cold winter shivered its way through the Deep South this past year, covers were hurriedly thrown over row crops and bonfires set ablaze in the middle of citrus orchards. Floridian farmers, unfamiliar with such brutally low temperatures, did what they could to save their top-grossing crops, but several lesser fruits fell to the wayside in the process. One of these was Florida’s marshmallow crop. With the peak demand for these delicious fruits typically occurring in mid – late Fall, many desperate farmers focused on the immediate future of their Spring/Summer tomatoes and oranges and allowed their marshmallow crops to fend for themselves in several back-to-back days of below freezing temperatures. Unfortunately, the arctic winds froze the young buds off of the majority of uncovered marshmallow plants and the state of Florida is now projecting a 78% loss in their marshmallow crop for 2010. This harsh blow to the marshmallow market will most likely result in significantly higher prices on traditional Easter treats such as marshmallow-filled Easter bunnies and eggs, pre-made Rice Krispie treats and worst of all, Peeps; a sugary marshmallow confection which has been synonymous with Easter since their creation in 1958.
However, one local farmer was looking to the future as an early Fall predicted possible shortcomings in the Florida fruit market. Sidi Limehouse, owner of Rosebank Farms, recalled the last time a heavy winter threatened Florida crops more than a decade ago, and decided to do something proactive: he planted his own marshmallow crops.
Grown and maintained entirely within two dedicated industrial greenhouses, Sidi and the Rosebank staff worked tirelessly to ensure that the marshmallow crop would survive where the Florida outdoor crops would fail. Warm, humid air was maintained through the use of old sauna equipment recovered from a local day spa renovation, and the requisite seven hours of sunlight per day was controlled with the help of several well-placed sunlamps.
The greatest challenge, according to Sidi, was pollination. Marshmallow plants (Althaea officinalis dulcis) are male and female, with the male marshmallow producing several vibrant-yellow cones of pollen per plant. The plant is similar in appearance to golden rod, with the exception that the pollen of the male plant is quite sticky and has a tendency to dye whatever it lands on to a bright yellow-green. In fact, for a short time, the pollen was the key dye ingredient in a popular soft drink which derived its name from the dye source: Mello Yello.
However, in an enclosed environment with little air movement, Sidi was forced to come up with another method for seeding the female plants. As the male plants matured, workers would dress in disposable paper jumpsuits and cut the flower stalks, shaking them in the air to release the pollen. Inevitably, however, the stalk shakers would get some of the pollen on their face or hands and the staff at Rosebank laughingly referred to it as “yellow fever.”
But in the end, all of the extra effort was worth it. As the temperatures warmed up to a reasonable 60+ during the day and 45+ in the evenings, the greenhouses were removed and the plants allowed to finish maturing in the full light of day. The first crop of marshmallows was harvested in mid-March and Sidi expects to collect at least 1,000 pounds of fruit from these highly-productive plants.
“Every time I turn around, there are more marshmallows growing,” Sidi said happily. “I think we might even exceed how much we expected from our first crop.”
Fresh marshmallows will be included in the Rosebank Farms CSA boxes for the first few weeks, and if the crops continue to produce at such a bountiful rate, these delicious white fruits will be a part of the CSA until the end of the first season. Fresh-picked marshmallows will also be available in the market during regular business hours.
“We couldn’t have asked for better timing with our first marshmallow crop,” said Sidi in light of this year’s Florida marshmallow crisis. “We’re working on hybrids right now, trying to produce marshmallows in Easter colors like pink, purple and green.” Another experiment involves grafting the male and female plants to encourage mid-winter pollination.
“And one last thing,” said Sidi with a grin. “April Fools!”