If We Stopped Breeding Plants Tomorrow, Would Anyone Really Care? (Opinion)

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My colleague Bob is a brilliant guy, and very much involved in the business of horticulture. He knows all the breeding companies, he assiduously studies trends and marketing, and best of all, he is a gardener. I love the fellow because every now and then he will utter an outrageous statement that makes people think. That he asked the above question during the California Spring Trials — the raison d’etre for new breeding — may have been a wee bit misguided, because it was at an intimate dinner hosted by the breeders of one of the largest horticulture companies. Upon asking, the dinner went quiet.

However, Bob was not one to let silence and a little jaw-dropping slow him down, and he added, “No, really — my friends and I have not come close to catching up to the introductions of five years ago, all of which, if I recall, were the greatest plants ever — so why do we need more?” The quiet was shattered!

However, Bob certainly had a point — my daughters, friends and neighbors really do not care about the name of the plant, let alone the cultivar, so what is new to them has no meaning. Everything is new! Even as were discussing, writing about, videotaping and photographing hundreds of new introductions for 2014, we constantly heard the age-old complaint, “Do we really need another new geranium?” Bob’s question simply expanded on that by asking “Do we really need another new anything?”

I lost myself in thought for a few minutes, as my dinner got cold. The question really goes to the belly of the beast, that is, “Why are we in business in the first place?” Supposedly our most important customer is, well, the customer. It used to be the gardener and landscaper but no more. If gardeners ask for anything by name, even with all the new tomatoes and pansies available, they still ask for ‘Better Boy’ tomatoes and ‘Super Majestic’ pansies. There is no way my neighbor is ever going to ask for Matrix pansies or Calliope geraniums, and they are many years old.  The truth is that the customer today is the grower and retailer. They must embrace what is new, and our friends and neighbors must rely on them when decorating their deck and home.

I came back to reality amongst comments flying over the table like arrows at Little Big Horn. I heard, “Do we need a new model of Ford, or tomato, or perfume or paint?”  “What would we have to market?”

Fortunately, it was a lively discussion, no food was thrown, and we realized we had no answer. One very smart breeder stated, “It is time everyone realized that we are not making new plants for the sake of the gardener, but our advances in breeding indirectly benefit the consumer and keep their interest.”  Another hit the nail on the head by saying, “We are not breeding for the sake of new, but hopefully for the sake of better.”

I thought about the fact that cars today routinely get 30 mpg, a result of all the intermediates (new introductions) from years past, and I am sure people complained about “one more new Ford.” “New” may never be understood to my neighbor’s satisfaction, but I can cite plant after plant, from alyssum to lobelia and certainly from geranium to petunia, that come off the bench earlier, hold their form tighter and tolerate outdoor abuse much better today that even five years ago. These new traits result in better production, better sales and better performance — and in the end a better plant for the consumer. To be sure, there have been plants that served no useful function and quickly disappeared into the dust of time, but the same can be said of the Edsel.

To suggest we need a breather is anathema to breeders — after all, that is their livelihood. And it simply will not happen. I have said it many times before and this discussion pointed out that I need to state it again: “New plants are the lifeblood of our industry.” We simply have to tell a better story – that all this breeding of a new red geranium or new yellow marigold is part of the journey, not the destination.

My neighbor and my daughters would be perfectly fine if a new geranium or petunia or echinacea was never introduced. There is no doubt a backlog of “new” for box stores and independents as it is. However, without the new, we would be out of business in five years, and of course, we would be bored to death. So, yes Bob, there will be new petunias next year and the year after, and we will all be the better for it.  

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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One comment on “If We Stopped Breeding Plants Tomorrow, Would Anyone Really Care? (Opinion)

  1. Carole

    And maybe someday one of the results of all these amazing efforts will be a deer-proof pansy! Hope springs eternal!