Kelly Norris Dishes on New Plants, Going to Seed, and Bootleg Petunias

Thalictrum Nimbus White (Terra Nova Nurseries)
Thalictrum ‘Nimbus White’ from Terra Nova Nurseries has cloud-like masses of white blooms over multiple dark stems.

I try to keep notes about what catches my eye each spring season — the first impressions of new varieties that might evolve into an over-the-top endorsement or a shrug of disinterest.

In the perennials with wood category, Spring Meadow Nursery has outdone itself with a host of new releases destined for retail in 2018. The Czechmark series of weigela proves that this old dog shrub still has new tricks, chiefly bevies of multi-colored (in the case of Trilogy) and white-marked-gold blooms (Sunny Side Up).

Terra Nova Nurseries has released improved spring-flowering thalictrum in two colors, white and purple, marketed as the Nimbus series. These were handsome, full plants for spring sales. The promise of clouds of flowering stems in stark contrast to the skimpy and minimal stems of the ordinary species is enough to make me salivate.

As I’ve previously gushed, the dozen or so new xMangave from Walters Gardens may be some of the more eclectic newcomers to the specialty scene this year. Their vigor is as initially reported — a 72-cell plug heftily filled a quart container in a little more than a month.

In Seed We Trust?

Weeding is a good exercise for accumulating deep thoughts, even if most of them lack profundity. As I pulled out handfuls of seedling Penstemon digitalis ‘Dark Towers’ at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, I couldn’t help but think why I was so bothered by them. First, as a curator, it does (should) bother me. As a botanical garden, we have a vested interest in preserving accessions, particularly those clonally propagated, from interlopers that might contaminate them over time. If it sounds puritanical, it should. However, the argument outside of an institution like ours becomes diluted. Does a gardener/consumer care much if the plants in her garden, three years post-planting, are genetically dissimilar to those she originally installed? Should she?

Weigela Czechmark (Spring Meadow Nursery)
Czechmark weigela from Spring Meadow Nursery has red, pink, and white blooms that put on a show in the spring.

I recently revamped a 4,000-square-foot pocket park in my hometown with a naturalistic design. The big debate as I sketched out the planting plan was who would pull the errant seedlings of various penstemon cultivars when they started to muddy their own waters? The project has a stable of dedicated volunteers with varying skills and interests in gardening. Will they know or care to remove them? I included this footnote in my planting notes:

“Avoid the temptation to pull seedlings if they seem to have a purpose. At some point, we all plant our own weeds.”

It also raises a question about the value of clonally propagating genera with great penchant for seed production. What will echinacea as a category look like in a decade? Will half or more of today’s clonally propagated varieties still be in existence or merely a footnote to horticultural history? We might all have given up the fight and just let them go to seed. The thinking (weeding) continues. More on this in a future column.

The Orange Petunia Scandal

I couldn’t let this one go, not considering my rhetorical disdain for our industry’s single most popular bedding product. It’s a rich story, as such rarified horticultural scandals go. A Finnish scientist who remembers just a little too much from the 1980s happens upon a startlingly orange petunia. Late night lab work, a few divulging conversations, and nearly two years later, the tip-off to Finnish authorities. The rub wasn’t an issue of food security or pesky proliferation. No, these otherwise regulable entities didn’t have their permits in order and were disallowed from sale in the U.S. The whole picture conjures images of an Enron-style dump: carotenoid-colored petunias ingloriously sacked, discharged, and shredded simply for being orange.

The whole situation should give us all a lot to think about as biotechnology becomes more accessible to horticultural plant developers. What does it all mean? Will petunias become the sympathetic face of a public discourse about the safety and validity of genetically modified organisms? Will new, pending rules from USDA loosen up our political thinking about GMOs, which are only going to become more sophisticated by design and thus difficult to detect? What will the gardening public do with a garden of Star Trek Borgs? Questions, questions.

The dirty secret is that the proliferation of the modified gene happened not because of a singular, concerted effort by one company to diversify petunia colors. It was stolen, swiped, borrowed without intention to return or any other verb which might suggest appropriating one company’s intellectual property for the benefit of another’s. Will an era of horticultural biotechnology give breeders defensible options for their intellectual property or simply open Pandora’s box for a greater number of perpetrators? It’s possible, at least for a few of us this year, that petunias gained a little cachet in all of this — who wouldn’t want to make a garden with a few contraband plants?

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