Allan Armitage: Why You Should Focus on the Functionality of New Plants

Butterfly on a Pollinator Plant Feature
New plants are great, but how about more plants with a purpose, like better pollinator plants. Photo credit: Janeen Wright

I travel to industry events throughout the year, where I talk with and listen to breeders, growers, retailers, landscapers, and gardeners. Like the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, I see the gap between what’s new and what works ever widening.

The Thrill of New Plants is Fading

This is true whether we admit it or not.

Let’s understand the evolution of new plants. Twenty years ago, we needed new plants. We needed better begonias, newer petunias, and improvements in hydrangeas, lantanas, and coneflowers. Ten years ago, we started to understand that what is new to the consumer is likely three years old to the industry, and five years ago, we started to hear some industry people and lay people, suggesting that new was not always better. In fact, it’s just the opposite. This comment not only persists today, it is getting louder. And now we are dealing with Millennials who want to decorate rather than garden, and landscape designers whose two most important criteria are low maintenance and cost. Breeding one more hydrangea or echinacea is really not that important to them.

Before I dig myself into too large a hole, let me assure you that I am a believer in new crops. I introduced new plants, I trialed new crops, and I have scoured breeders to communicate about what is new and why it’s special with the people with whom I consult. I will always believe that new crops are the lifeblood of our industry, but we need to be making less of a deal about them. It is true that nobody asks, “What’s old?”, but other than me and you, fewer “real” people are asking about what’s new, either.

Let’s Focus on Function

Of course, telling breeders to slow down is like telling President Trump to stop tweeting. However, I hope we could guide them in selecting plants for functionality, not to create one more series. By functionality, I mean working on plants that deer don’t eat (better lavenders, better hellebores, etc.) and rabbits don’t touch, native plants that are more compact and useful, and plants that mildew does not discolor. And breeders need to tell us what they are breeding for functionality, and how it makes a difference.

I know these programs are going on, but they still appear as just one more new plant. Tell us what the function is that you are breeding for, so we can tell everyone else.

At California Spring Trials, I don’t need to see a hanging this or that. I want to see a bona-fide deer-resistant breeding program that brings me yellow hellebores, for example. I want to get excited about a mildew program that allows me to sell a phlox for a reason. I would love to see a genuine pollinator program, with breeding for better pollinator plants. Tell me about the program and why it helps, not just about one more pretty lavender.

As for the retailers, work with producers who already have these functional programs — they are out there. Work with nurseries that can supply you with pollinator plants so you can specify an area specifically for bee and butterfly lovers, with flashy labels. Pollinators are currently the No. 1 talking point and passion for plant users everywhere.

Provide a rabbit-proof corner, a native area that is part of the pollinator bench, plants for kids (eyeball plant, stevia), plants simply to have fun, and on and on — all with flashy signage. Your garden center is not the library. My daughter wants instant information. Good grief, my grandkids need their hands held — but that is for another day.

At MANTS this year, I met nurserymen and women who realize that the function of the plant is just as important as its beauty. Find them and follow them.

Breeders, growers, and retailers can talk the same language: the language of purpose. I am not sure how many will, but those who keep their heads down and listen may be pleasantly surprised.

I will now step down from my soapbox and be calmly pelted by my critics. I will continue to support the development of new plants. It just would be nice if you helped me out a little.

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

6 comments on “Allan Armitage: Why You Should Focus on the Functionality of New Plants

  1. What happens to the plants when we breed them for deer resistance or mildew resistance? How does that alter leaf chemistry so moths and butterflies can’t lay eggs on them, or the flower chemistry so bees can’t recognize the nectar or pollen? What happens when we are literally using the same plant in Atlanta as we are in Detroit because we produce plants through cloning? Will those plants be in sync with local pollinators and the local climate? I think the trade’s next big goal should be producing locally-genetic native plants, species and selections, if we’re really trying to push function (pollinators, adaptable to drought, etc), as the market seems to be wanting.

  2. The plant industry should really gear up for the dramatic climate changes taking place and adapt what they grow to emerging conditions. We have had no winter in western North Carolina and are in a 15″+ rainfall deficit since the beginning of 2016. 70 degree winter temperatures and extreme drought are not the historic norm in this area.

  3. “breeding for better pollinator plants”? There are thousands of flowering plants which attract and support pollinators. You can certainly choose the best plants for your area and site conditions but you cannot make them “better” or at least not better for the pollinators. Breeding for size, color, disease resistance, and other traits which may be attractive to us are often to the detriment of the real consumers of these plants.

More From Armitage On Plants...
Millet-Copper-Prince

November 20, 2017

2017 Colorado State University Field Trial Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO.

Read More
Achillea-Ritzy-Ruby

November 19, 2017

2017 Green Leaf Plants Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trials results for Green Leaf Plants in Lancaster, PA.

Read More
Ball-Bed-with-Midnight-Snack-tomato_Cornell

November 18, 2017

2017 Cornell University Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trials results for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

Read More
Latest Stories
Allan Armitage San Marzano tomato plant feature

October 26, 2017

Allan Armitage: Why Simplicity Rules for Younger Homeow…

Most starter gardeners are not looking to buy the ingredients to make a combination planter or basket. They want it made for them — no muss, no fuss.

Read More
Allan Armitage Of Naked Ladies and Forget Me Nots

October 2, 2017

Hear Classic Plant Stories From Allan Armitage in an Up…

Greenhouse Grower’s resident Contributing Editor and “Dr. A. Unchained” scribe Allan Armitage will be the guest speaker on gardening author and speaker Kerry Ann Mendez’s national gardening Webinar series.

Read More
Armitage GWA Buffalo Tour 5

September 21, 2017

Tour of Buffalo Gardens Reveals Hidden Gems And Communi…

This past August, Allan Armitage joined the Association for Garden Communicators on a tour of Buffalo. It was a reminder that that we can make a difference in neighborhoods, in cities, and in people’s lives.

Read More
Bidens Popstar (Kientzler)

August 31, 2017

Allan Armitage: Why I’ve Become a Fan of Bidens

The rather boring plant with mundane daisy-yellow flowers has morphed into a vigorous plant carrying colorful flowers that seems to be comfortable in most of the country.

Read More
Van Wilgens Garden Center Customer Appreciation Day

July 26, 2017

Allan Armitage: How Interacting With Your Customers Can…

Plants are our common denominator, but trust and positive interaction with our customers and each other is truly what keeps us in the plant business.

Read More
Allan Armitage Citizenship

June 26, 2017

Allan Armitage Describes His Path to Citizenship

In between offering his take on new varieties and gardening trends, Allan Armitage and his wife Susan recently became proud citizens of the U.S.

Read More
Tyler Beasley and Allan Armitage

May 25, 2017

Allan Armitage: Two Great Examples of Young People Movi…

In his latest column, Allan Armitage says perhaps we should, as an industry, extend our hands to our youngest members. We might be pleasantly surprised what happens.

Read More
Allan Armitage Of Naked Ladies and Forget Me Nots

May 2, 2017

Allan Armitage: How Growers Can Be Creative to Take Gar…

Our industry does a good job of making things convenient for our customers. It’s time to take it a step further.

Read More

April 5, 2017

Dr. A’s Day Four Top Varieties for CAST 2017

Check out Dr. Allan Armitage's top five picks from visits to Dummen Orange, Chisan Orchids, and Windmill Nursery during day four of California Spring Trials 2017.

Read More

April 4, 2017

Dr. A’s Day Three Picks for CAST 2017

Take a look at Dr. Allan Armitage’s top five favorites from the American Takii, Sakata, and Floricultura stops during the 2017 California Spring Trials.

Read More

April 3, 2017

CAST 2017, Day 2: Dr A’s Eye Catchers

Today I wanted to share some exciting programs that were on display on Day 2 at CAST. There are always new plants to chat up, which I will do tomorrow, but here are a few interesting lineups to think about.

Read More

April 2, 2017

CAST 2017: Dr. A’s Top 5 Picks From Danziger, Syngenta …

On day one of California Spring Trials 2017, Dr. Allan Armitage reveals the five plants that most caught his attention.

Read More
Allan Armitage Of Naked Ladies and Forget Me Nots

March 28, 2017

New Book From Allan Armitage Features Stories of Plant …

“Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots” offers Allan’s recollections of the origins of unique plant names, as well as how many plants factored into historical events.

Read More
Bee on Lavender feature

March 23, 2017

Allan Armitage: Plant Consumers Don’t Talk About …

Allan Armitage says it's time to get in touch with our true audience and market plant solutions, not plant products.

Read More
Butterfly on a Pollinator Plant Feature

March 7, 2017

Allan Armitage: Why You Should Focus on the Functionali…

New crops are great, but Armitage says selling plants by function makes more sense.

Read More
Allan Armitage San Marzano tomato plant feature

January 25, 2017

Allan Armitage Describes Veggies, Shade Plants, and Cli…

Here's a look at plants that could help you with successful growing in 2017.

Read More
nepeta-purple-wave-with-roses

December 30, 2016

Allan Armitage: Plants That Can Bring Success in the Ne…

Are you wondering which plants to grow? Here are some perennials, annuals, and herbs that are gaining popularity.

Read More
allan-friend-daughter-kate-pulling-margarita-feature

November 23, 2016

Allan Armitage: Relax, There Are More Plant Enthusiasts…

When times get tough, we would do well to remember that there are people of all types still interested in plants.

Read More