Impatiens. Petunias. Verbenas.
Much of the breeding in these annuals is focused on building bench-run programs designed to meet the grower’s needs. Breeders are largely taking the same approach to calibrachoas, a crop that’s generated tremendous consumer interest since Suntory Flowers first brought Million Bells to market.
Missing a white variety in a calibrachoa series? Odds are the breeder is working hard to make one available to growers to fill out a series. Same goes for other hard-to-breed colors that aren’t yet available. But is that bench-run breeding approach the right one for calibrachoa–or all annuals for that matter? Rick Schoellhorn, the director of new products for Proven Winners, raises the question.
“We have a shrinking number of breeding companies in the industry,” Schoellhorn says. “The past two years it seems like the breeding has gotten more conservative and it’s more about, ‘Here’s our bench-run series. Here’s something that will attract the grower.'”
Schoellhorn argues that breeders need to be taking larger steps with their work. Every breeder has nice red petunias, he says, and just about every breeder has a nice calibrachoa series. So what’s truly new?
That takes us to novelties,” Schoellhorn says. “In a situation where you have all these breeding companies being reduced slowly but surely into fewer players, they’re all trying to get growers’ attention with the same material, and they’re fighting over price.”
The Proven Winners approach to calibrachoa is unique in that the group isn’t attempting to fill out existing series with new colors. Instead, Proven Winners is focused on building collections with novelties like the new ‘Superbells Cherry Star’ and the Punch types like Blackberry and Coralberry.
The difference with Proven Winners, Schoellhorn says, is it selects varieties based on consumer performance first–not necessarily what fits into a grower’s system. Factors like earliness to flower and day neutrality are important, but they’re not the basis for the brand’s decision makers.
“We select for the pH tolerance and disease resistance, but we also want to extend the consumer flowering season,” Schoellhorn says. “It’s a different process, and novelties probably drive it because if something is radically different than a generic calibrachoa or petunia, then it’s a highlight to the consumer.”
The Flip Side
Suntory’s Shigeru Sarada and Yasuyuki Murakami, the Million Bells breeder, agree calibrachoas ultimately should be bred for consumers. In Japan, where Suntory propagates, grows and delivers Million Bells directly to retailers, Suntory keeps close tabs on consumers and gets their feedback on which varieties they prefer most.
Still, breeders can’t always provide consumers with the colors and styles they want. Breeders have limitations, Sarada says, and they must sometimes make difficult decisions about the material they ultimately offer to the market.
“Consumers would be disappointed in a combination basket they had purchased if it didn’t reach their perceived ornamental value,” Sarada says.
There are still calibrachoa breeding problems to solve–or at least improve–such as disease resistance, flower size, pH tolerance and uniformity. Some breeders, like Danziger with its Calitunias and Sakata with its Petchoas, are crossing calibrachoa with petunias to overcome these issues. The logic behind their approach is consumers don’t necessarily care how the plants come to be, just that they meet their simple expectations.
“We’re still working on the Calitunia breeding,” says Danziger’s Reese Kiikka. “We have two colors and it’s not a series. It’s very difficult to breed the calibrachoa plant with the petunia flower. The tendency is for the plant to want to look more like the calibrachoa flower. What we really want is to have a satisfied customer who’s responsible for basic care and water.”
Paul Hammer, Dömmen’s research and development manager, knows how difficult it is to achieve market-worthy calibrachoa-petunia hybrids. He says Dömmen has dabbled in that area but that it hasn’t come across anything with the flower size and performance it could confidently take to market.
Dömmen has had plenty of success with calibrachoa, though, particularly with its Confetti Garden combos that incorporate the Alohas.
“The Alohas were bred for pH tolerance,” Hammer says. “Five years ago that was an issue. When you have something that’s susceptible to a 0.5 pH range, you’re going to have yellowing problems. Now, growers can fluctuate their pH more and not see issues.”
Day neutrality and flower size are two other key factors Dömmen’s breeders take into account. Plant habit is important, too.
“The habit the industry is looking for now is tighter, mounding, more color and more coverage,” Hammer says. “All of that can be improved in most series.”
Steve Jones, the president of Green Fuse Botanicals, also has certain qualities he’s tried to achieve with his Spring Fling series.
“What I was looking for was something nice and compact, but not a mini one,” Jones says. “I was looking for a nice mounded habit, but one that had the earliness and flexibility in the pH range. Calibrachoa is such a huge market in the United States. We definitely want to be part of it because calibrachoa has been estimated to be north of a 30 million unit crop.”
Then there’s Schoellhorn and the Proven Winners approach. Several of the plant qualities already mentioned are essential to Proven Winners’ breeders. No breeder or brand, after all, wants to saddle growers with difficult-to-grow crops. Schoellhorn simply questions whether floriculture is providing plants consumers are asking for.
“For us, earliness to flower, day neutrality and other things drive a lot of the selection process,” he says. “But it really is consumer performance that has to be there or there’s no movement forward. Proven Winners as a group tries to make sure the consumer gets something that will do well. If you can’t do that then you’re actually part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
Schoellhorn agrees a wide pH range is as important as ever to both growers and consumers to succeed with calibrachoa. Habit, however, is more of a grower problem than it is something consumers are asking for. And he points to the disappearance of trailing calibrachoas as an example of market-worthy plants few growers are willing to grow.
“The true trailing calibrachoa is disappearing not because they don’t perform, but because the grower doesn’t want them,” Schoellhorn says. “There are many phenomenal plants that are such a pain for growers that they never get to market. To me, it’s almost a scary thing.”