Breeders know they’ve produced a winning variety when other breeders strive to replicate and improve their originals. Breeders especially know they’ve got a winner when even their competitors tout how revolutionary their varieties are.
In geraniums, Syngenta Flowers’ Caliente and Calliope are clearly the ones others are trying to emulate.
“The color in Calliope set the new standard,” says Paul Hammer, research and development manager at Dömmen USA. “Our Cumbanita geraniums are going after that color and our Salsarita are being bred for the heat tolerance.”
Jim Kennedy, sales manager at Ball FloraPlant, agrees both Calliope and Caliente are groundbreaking. Years before Syngenta introduced Caliente, Ball FloraPlant unveiled Galleria as an interspecific that leans more ivy than zonal. Better heat tolerance for the ivies was the driver of Ball’s pursuit, but Syngenta’s introduction elevated geraniums to an even higher level.
“For us at Ball, the Calientes showed what was possible,” Kennedy says. “With Calientes, the promise of greater heat tolerance in an ivy was something that garnered a lot of attention from the big box buyers. As a breeding company, realizing the consumers and buyers have a huge influence on what ends up on the shelf, it cemented in our minds that better consumer performance was a path we needed to go down.”
Heat tolerance was a big driver of Syngenta’s pursuit of Caliente, as well.
“Mitch Hanes, the breeder, wanted the ivies to have better branching and better heat tolerance because regular ivies don’t take heat very well,” says Karl Trellinger, technical service representative at Syngenta. “Mitch also wanted to eliminate growers’ troubles with edema.”
Caliente now features eight colors, including Deep Red, Hot Coral and Lavender. White is one color Caliente lacks, but Trellinger says Hanes continues to pursue a white and a few other colors. But perhaps more importantly, Syngenta wants its next Calientes to sport more flowers.
“They’re very good right now,” Trellinger says, “but we want even more flower power. When you look at ‘Caliente Orange,’ the flowers are bigger and you have more flower coverage. That’s where we’re going now.”
The next step for Calliope, meanwhile, is to expand beyond the existing two varieties and into a more complete series. Trellinger says those who attend next year’s California Spring Trials will find a few new Calliope introductions.
“You’re going to see some really interesting new colors in Calliope,” Trellinger says. “Right now we only have Scarlet Fire and Dark Red. We’ve been working on the colors for quite a long time. The colors we’re going to introduce will improve the vibrancy of existing colors in zonal geraniums. Right now, what you see in the zonals is not very vibrant. We want to make the color stronger.”
Astoundingly, Trellinger says Hanes spent about 15 years developing Calliope before it actually came to market. The original idea behind Calliope was to develop a true dark red, particularly one whose flowers don’t burn. Syngenta also wanted to improve geranium branching, vigor and heat tolerance.
Caliente was a big undertaking, as well, and having Caliente, Calliope and other interspecifics like them on the market better positions geraniums to consumers.
“We really think geraniums are gaining importance now,” Trellinger says. “We feel we can increase the market share of geraniums. With the new Calliopes and Calientes, there’s going to be more excitement and the performance is going to be so much better. It’s reinventing geraniums.”
Colors, Leaves & Cutting Quality
The fact that multiple breeders are ramping up programs for interspecifics affirms cross breeding is the future of the crop. But breeders are also focusing on other areas. Fides, for example, is focusing on bicolors like ‘Pop Idols Lilac with Eye.’ It continues to pursue that brand-new geranium color, as well.
“You’d like to find that color nobody has,” says Reinoud Hagen, commercial manager at Fides. “I can’t say we’re going after a blue geranium, but what’s impossible today could be possible tomorrow.”
In Europe, Hagen indicates five colors dominate the geranium market. The bigger market driver here in the United States, he says, is uniqueness, which offers breeders a way around not having complete series. Hagen also sees a growing market for dark-leaved geraniums, as does Dömmen’s Hammer.
“We’ve done a lot of work to get some vigor behind dark leaves,” Hammer says. “Consumers find the dark foliage against certain flower colors appealing.”
One geranium area in which breeders could improve is in unrooted cutting quality. Dömmen, for example, is shipping many cuttings out of Ethiopia, where Hammer says transit is smoother and geraniums aren’t sitting in airports for three or four days at a time like they can in other countries.
Ball FloraPlant and Paul Ecke Ranch are focusing on geranium cutting quality, as well. Ball’s Genesis and Ecke’s Snap callused-cutting programs are designed to shorten the time geraniums need on a grower’s bench. Providing cuttings that need less bench time should minimize shrink and eliminate yellowing in cuttings.
“We’re looking at ways to make geraniums more producible,” Kennedy says. “Geranium is very common in the marketplace and it’s very price competitive. So we’re looking at how we can bring a product that is a fresher cutting.”
Adds Hammer: “It makes a huge difference when a grower has a cutting that’s stressed versus one that’s Grade A.”
This year, Florida’s Costa Farms trialed geranium varieties from Dömmen, Ecke, Elsner PAC, Fides and Syngenta. The University of Georgia’s Allan Armitage got a peek at those trials earlier this year with Better Homes & Gardens’ Doug Jimerson and Disney’s Heather Will-Browne. All three served as judges for the entire trial.
Two geraniums, Syngenta’s ‘Caliente Orange’ and a Dömmen experimental variety, were among the top 16 varieties the judges selected in the entire trial. Dömmen’s Salsaritas rated highly, as well.
“I have been very, very impressed by the [Salsaritas],” Armitage says. “Pink is particularly good. (Dark) Red is also an excellent available geranium. I’m not sure where Salsa is going to be in the interspecific competition, but I think it’s going to be different than anything else out there.”
Another series that performed well at Costa earlier this year was Syngenta’s Pinto Premium. Kate Santos, director of research and development, says a lot of trial garden visitors were surprised to learn Pinto Premium is from seed based on their impressive performance.
To Costa Farms, a geranium is truly a remarkable one if it performs well in both a container and in the garden.
“It has to make two checkpoints for us before it moves into our production program,” Santos says. “It’s all well and good if you can grow it in a container, but there are enough examples out there that if you put a geranium in a garden, it doesn’t do well at all.”
The next geranium Santos would like to see is the one consumers don’t have to deadhead. Caliente, she says, is a step in that direction. Heat and drought tolerance are important geranium qualities, too.
“The longer a geranium lasts for the consumer, the more success they’ll have,” Santos says. “Plus, people have less time today.”