SAN ANTONIO (AP) - A summer spent working at an H-E-B floral department exposed teenagers Hannah Taylor and Ashley Walker to a sad fact of the nearly $105 billion global flower industry.
The San Antonio Express-News reports 45 percent of the blooms stocked by retail flower shops - including the lilies flown in from the Netherlands and the roses imported from Colombia and Ecuador - are thrown out before ever reaching a customer.
"We noticed during our internship that if flowers were not purchased within a few days they would be discarded due to the buildup of bacteria in the floral buckets," Taylor, 17, said.
"Almost half of it going to waste is ineffective from both an economic and natural resource standpoint."
They knew the problem had to do with stagnant water because both Taylor and Walker had earned their Texas floral design certifications and conducted water-quality research as part of the Agriscience Magnet Program at Madison High School.
They wondered if a simple aeration system could stir that water, preventing the proliferation of bacteria and other toxins, and extending the flowers' vase life long enough to get more of them to homes, sweethearts and banquet tables.
It was the basis of a research project that found that using hose barb adapters and an aquarium pump could not only extend the life of lilies - their test plant - by almost a week but also bloom the plants faster. That could be key as customers often want flowers in full bloom.
"Everybody's done research projects on putting pennies in the water or grandma's old trick of Sprite and aspirin. I mean, old wives' tales that you hear people talk about," said Joshua Anderson, the Madison High technology teacher who coached them through the project. "We were like, yeah, well, let's do something different."
They're now seeking a patent for the process, which won top prizes at both the Alamo Regional Science and Engineering Fair, and Texas FFA State Convention. It also got them a trip to compete with young scientists from around the world at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh. In October, they'll be vying for an award at the national FFA convention in Indianapolis.
"It was taking the aquaculture research and . applying it to the floral industry," Anderson said. "They started doing the background research and found nothing out there that did that."
Judges at Intel may have thought that the technology almost seemed too simple, he said.
Still, he says it could be an industry game-changer. "If it goes through the next steps, really we can develop a product that could revolutionize the floral industry," he said.
Anderson teaches floriculture - he saved thousands of dollars some 20 years ago by doing the flowers for his own wedding. Madison students earn more floral design certifications than any other school in Texas, knowing they can graduate with both a marketable skill and a transferable college fine arts credit.
Students sometimes sell floral designs, such as corsages for parents attending the recent senior night, homecoming mums, and arrangements for banquets, baby showers and weddings.
"This morning I came in, I was like, man, I really wish I had the aeration going like right now, because I need these open for the funeral piece that we're working on in class," Anderson said.
Taylor and Walker's research started with three basic hypotheses. The first was that flowers sitting in buckets the usual way - their control group - would be wilting from elevated levels of bacteria and ammonia nitrogen after 14 days.
The second and third were that using either aquarium air stones or hose barb adaptors with aquarium air pumps would result in reduced levels of both pollutants during that same time period.
They used three groups of three plants each to see what happened. Sure enough, the control group had severe root browning, and flowers were falling off the stems.
The air stone group actually led to increased bacterial levels, possibly because the tiny bubbles produced by the stones were raising the level of dissolved oxygen and fostering the growth.
"In the future, we'd like to run this test on different types of flowers," said Walker, 17. "Hopefully we can find the funds to test what type of bacteria is present and whether it's good or bad for the flowers."
The test with the hose barb adapter group was more successful. It both lowered bacteria levels and produced faster blooming, a great feature as customers usually prefer fully bloomed flowers.
The Texas State Florists' Association each year tests about 1,400 students for a level one certification. Walker is one of only 35 to 40 to earn the more rigorous level two certification.
Still, neither she nor Taylor see working full time in the floral industry.
After graduating a year early, Walker is working with dementia and Alzheimer's patients while pursuing a health care track at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Taylor will enter Texas A&M University next fall with a major in animal science and a minor in horticulture.
"Hopefully, with a patent, if we pursue that, I want to have a background in the horticulture and floral industry," she said.
Anderson, who would share in the patent, has taught them to think big.
"It could potentially come in a kit for a retail flower shop. For an H-E-B, for example, in their large warehouse, it could potentially be an installed system designed especially for them," he said. "On a larger scale, the cost could be scaled down so much because you're dealing with large quantities."
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com