HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The homeowner has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new, high-end home in an expensive subdivision. But the white colonial was covered in tiny black spores. Lynn Griffith, a horticultural consultant and expert on tropical plants and soil, was stumped.
Griffith, of Boca Raton, took a sample of soil and mulch to the University of Florida IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center and walked into the Plant Diagnostic Clinic with high hopes. “The director of the clinic, Romina Gazis, and her team were able to identify the fungus in the soil that was shooting spores all over the house,” Griffith said. “They offered non-chemical and chemical solutions to the problem, and the homeowner walked away happy.”
“The speed of results is the biggest hot button for plants. They work fast and accurately, and their prices are reasonable,” Griffith explained.
The UF/IFAS TREC Plant Diagnostic Clinic is one of few in the country to offer direct help to nurseries, growers and homeowners who are facing various plant and soil issues. “I turn to the clinic for help because there are almost no private labs anymore in the country offering plant pathology,” Griffith said. “There used to be many private labs, but now we turn to the TREC plant clinic to identify plant issues.”
“Tropical plants are different, and require different approaches,” said Gazis, who works out of three labs in a small building. “The TREC lab is very familiar with tropical plants and their problems. In other parts of the country, they don’t have direct access to the client, and that is so important,” she said.
The team serves landscapers, homeowners and growers from across the state, but mostly from counties in south Florida. Researchers see bustling business five days a week and, sometimes, on Saturdays.
“There are 1,500 nurseries registered in Miami Dade County alone—and this industry is one of the most important in south Florida,” Gazis said. “We are the number two producer of ornamental plants in the country and number one supplier of tropical foliage.”
According to Gazis, the nursery and landscape industry has an estimated total sales output surpassing $8 billion and the support of more than 70,000 jobs. “So, having a local Plant Diagnostic Clinic and a strong and integrative plant health program available and easily accessible to nursery growers, horticulture consultants, and landscapers is essential. An accurate and timely diagnosis can prevent economic losses,” she said.
Also, Gazis works with tropical fruit growers, diagnosing and explaining how to manage pest and diseases affecting their groves. Growers present questions about everything from mangoes to guava to Pitaya, an emerging crop in south Florida that is quickly replacing avocado and citrus farmlands.
Another large client group is the landscape industry, Gazis said. “Within the landscape industry, my clients are mostly landscaping and pest control companies, who mainly bring palm and turf samples,” she said. “The clinic receives an average of 1,000 samples a year, and we—in contrast with clinics in other regions—do not have a low season. It is always warm and humid in south Florida, so disease pressure is pretty high year-round.”
In the future, Gazis hopes to:
- Expand the impact of the TREC-PDC and build a collaborative network of regulatory agencies and research institutions across the country and overseas.
- Improve, develop, and implement new disease diagnostic approaches to better inform disease management programs.
- Establish a framework to predict when and where diseases will hit.
- Support research that explores the establishment of alternative crops in South Florida.
“We have a lot of work ahead,” said Gazis, “and we are ready to meet the challenge.”
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