It’s a green industry tale as old as time: Two passionate plant people build a business and have kids. After running away to college or pursuing other careers, the children return to the fold, realizing their love for horticulture was there all along.
Ushio Sakazaki’s path to plant breeding greatness follows a similar trajectory. His father was a botanist, who passed on a deep respect for beautiful flora to his son. Sakazaki got his start at the Suntory Company growing grapes in the Brazilian rainforest in 1984. The company was developing an inexpensive white wine, but poor-quality grapes brought the project to a halt.
That’s when fate took over. While in Brazil, Sakazaki encountered a petunia he’d never seen anywhere else. The carpet-like plant was essentially a groundcover with thousands of flowers blossoming from each individual plant. Sakazaki saw an opportunity to bring something wholly new to the Japanese market, and he took it.
“It was so beautiful,” Sakazaki says. “At the time, there wasn’t anything vegetative or creeping on the market.”
Surfinia was born two years later in a breeding facility focused on roses. The cross between wild and domestic petunia genetics was a big hit with consumers across the globe. Sakazaki would continue to use his signature breeding method to gift the industry with some of its most popular plants, even founding and running his own breeding company, Plant 21 LLC. Today, many of his creations are sold and marketed under the Proven Winners brand.
While consumers are familiar with the crowd-pleasing Supertunia, Superbells, and Superbena collections, Sakazaki has also put his magic touch to Passiflora ‘Aphrodities Purple Nightie,’ Evolvulus ‘Blue My Mind,’ and Mecardonia ‘GoldDust’ — to name a few. No matter what he’s working on, the result will be a high-performance plant filled with intensely colorful blossoms that emit an appealing fragrance. Consumers can expect the full package.
Challenging the Status Quo
Although Sakazaki holds his breeding secrets and inspirations close, he’s always on the lookout for something new, with an eye toward the future.
“Bringing something completely new to the industry is the highest priority,” he says. He fulfills this objective by introducing at least one novel variety each year, sometimes more.
Sakazaki is, however, worried about where the industry is going. His personal belief is that many of the plants on the market have lost their connection to nature, taking on a plastic or artificial aesthetic. This can have an interesting effect: People are less excited about the industry’s offerings. Sakazaki wants to renew the gardener’s sense of wonder.
“Our mentality focuses on how to keep the power of nature front and center for the consumer,” he says. “We want to create plants that connect people to the act of growing the plant.”
Sakazaki isn’t one to rest on his laurels, despite the weight of his many accomplishments, which include Petunia ‘Supertunia ‘Picasso in Pink’ with its striking green-rimmed blossoms and Calibrachoa ‘Superbells Lemon Slice,’ an innovative color form that pushed the limits of what people thought was possible.
“When you think about what he’s done for the industry — not just for Proven Winners or Plant 21, but also by bringing a new petunia to the market and creating billions of dollars in revenue —we all owe Ushio a debt of gratitude,” says Kevin Hurd, Director of New Products at Proven Winners.
It seems the breeder has another genetic trait common to plant people: modesty. Sakazaki’s prolific career speaks for itself, encouraging other industry professionals to branch out and try new things. Hurd perfectly summarizes this sentiment in just a few words:“ The industry would be really boring without Ushio.”
Announcing the Ushio Sakazaki Proven Winners Scholarship
Proven Winners hopes to inspire future generations of plant people by naming their breeding scholarship after one of the best. The Ushio Sakazaki Proven Winners Plant Breeding Scholarship awards $5,000 to university students. As the scholarship’s homepage explains, “New flowers and plants are the lifeblood of our industry.” Students dedicated to innovation in a competitive market have an opportunity to better pursue those interests. The scholarship requires applicants to submit a 750-word essay on “What I Want to Accomplish in Horticulture,” a reference letter by a current academic advisor or professor, and a photo.