Remember walking into a Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlor when you were a kid? So many flavors to choose from – 31 to be exact. It was enough to make your little league baseball cap spin on top of your head.
Visiting Dupont Nursery (and its website) is a lot like that, especially for hibiscus lovers. From blooms of dark blues to golden greens, it’s clear this nursery hangs its hat on the unfamiliar. “We enjoy finding the new plants,” says Robbie Dupont, owner of Dupont Nursery. “It’s the biggest challenge, but we have a lot of fun with it. You have to.”
Father Knows Best
Located in Plaquemine, La., Dupont Nursery is a bedding plant nursery, wholesale distributor and exotic hibiscus hybridizer. Ninety percent of its business is selling finished annuals, perennials and specialty items to independent retail garden centers.
“[Hibiscus] is a big part of our business and it’s getting bigger all the time,” Robbie says. “We ship them all over the world. We have propagators in Spain, Italy and Portugal. We got a call from French Polynesia the other day.”
But long before the inquiring call from a tiny South Pacific island and all the hibiscus hybridizing, Dupont Nursery started off as a garden center and floral shop in 1956, under Bobby Dupont, Robbie’s father. Robbie took over the business in 1975, and 10 years later built a second location for growing, just a few miles away in Plaquemine.
The retail side of things ended several years ago. “We just couldn’t do it all,” Robbie says. “With retail, you’re limited by the number of people you have to sell to in a small town. On the wholesale end, you really don’t have those constraints. You can grow as big as you want to grow.”
His father, Bobby, retired from the floral industry in 1995. While retired, Bobby began breeding hibiscuses as a hobby, breeding more for collector-type blooms. He took these blooms into hibiscus shows, which generated a good deal of interest. In 2005, Bobby placed first at the National Hibiscus Competition with ‘Black Dragon.’ That same year, he also took second with ‘Etouffee.’
After some fatherly convincing, Robbie took these hibiscuses into production all the while making it a priority to develop a plant with more than just breathtaking blooms, but also nice growth habits.
Since then, much of Bobby’s “retirement” has been spent breeding hibiscuses, more than 200 varieties. His breeding process is extensive and aided by Father Robert Gerlich. Father Gerlich is a professor at Loyola University and also the president of the New Orleans Chapter of the American Hibiscus Society.
“Every year we plant seedlings,” Bobby says. “A couple of years ago we planted about 1,500, and out of those 1,500, we got about 100 varieties. Out of those 100, we had 20 or 30 that we went into production with.”
His son Robbie says hibiscuses take anywhere from six months to two years. When we see one that blooms well, that we like the bloom on, we’ll put it in the trial and see how it goes.”
With a reputation built on exciting, new varieties, Dupont Nursery puts plenty of effort into developing sports, and not just with hibiscuses.
“A sport is simply recognizing that something’s very different about one plant in a large group of plants,” Robbie says.
“For instance, we have a new rudbeckia goldstrum called ‘Early Bird Gold’ that’s patented. This rudbeckia was in a group of maybe 1,500 seedlings in quart pots. They were all nice and even and green, about 3 inches tall, filling the pot. And then we had one plant that was 12 to 14 inches tall with 35 flowers on it. It was obvious there was something different about it.”
The Duponts discovered this plant didn’t require vernalization and it was day-length neutral, which means it will bloom much earlier compared to other varieties.
Other popular Dupont Nursery sports include a scaevola called ‘Cajun Blue’ and a coreopsis called ‘Sundancer,’ both of which are patented. ‘Sundancer’ actually came out of a group of the ‘Sunray’ variety Dupont Nursery was growing. “It’s the only coreopsis that will reliably bloom in Florida,” Robbie says. “It’s self-sterile, so it doesn’t have the big seed heads on it.”
“Home of Cajun Color,” is a little tagline the Duponts came up with years ago to differentiate their business, says Robert, who also heads up the branding for Dupont Nursery. The driving force behind this slogan is the popular Cajun hibiscus line. “It’s on our tags and our pots. It definitely gave us our own identity.” Through MasterTag, the nursery came up with a picture tag in 2008. “It’s a very classy-looking tag and it seems to have helped,” he adds. “We sell it on the finished one gallon.”
Another recent update to the Cajun hibiscus line is 10-inch hanging baskets. This is the first year Dupont Nursery has offered the hibiscus hanging baskets and they’ve been very well received. “We’ve created a monster and now everyone in the country wants them,” Robert says. There are four varieties that do particularly well in hanging baskets: ‘Hanging Garden,’ ‘Wild At Heart,’ ‘Louisiana Flash,’ and ‘Evangeline.’
In addition to their own branding effort, Dupont Nursery is licensed to grow the Suntory and Athens Select lines, along with a few varieties from Itsaul Plants.
And while Father Gerlich has helped Bobby Dupont in the hibiscus breeding line, son Robbie also needed some help, but on the production side of things.
“Two years ago, we licensed Sun-Fire Nurseries to help beef up the production of hibiscus,” Robbie says. Sun-Fire is based just outside of Sarasota, Fla., and seemed like a logical partner, according to Robbie. “They do bougainvilleas and Suntory mandevillas. We realized we needed to have someone in Florida where the growing climate is even better for hibiscus. At Sun-Fire, the hibiscuses are grown with a lot less effort and a lot less heat.”
In house, Dupont Nursery’s production line consists of a tray filler, a pot dropper, a manual transplant line and a watering tunnel. During peak season, Robbie employs approximately 70 workers. “We use monorail carts to distribute the plants throughout the nursery,” Robbie says. If everything goes well for the Duponts, they would like to have a new automatic transplanter up and running by summer.
“Business is up from last year and there’s not enough hours in the day,” Robbie says. “At times it’s been so busy, we’ve had to pull the planting crew to help us pull orders. That’s why I think the transplanter is the answer.”