Kelly Norris: Why We Need to Reevaluate the New Plant Threshold

New-Plant-Display-at-Retail
A market inundated with new plants every year may mean that no one plant can entrench itself in consumers’ conciousness long enough to become well-known for its performance.

Malcolm Gladwell didn’t coin the phrase “the tipping point,” but he did give it relevance in the modern lexicon with his 2000 book of the same name. He defined a tipping point as, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” He also described three rules of epidemics, articulating a case for virality (although he didn’t call it that) or the essence of how something catches on and becomes momentous or memorable (Jonah Berger posited a similar theory of why things catch on in six steps in his 2013 book “Contagious”).

What Tips the Scale?

The germ of an idea for this column began as an email exchange with Susie Raker-Zimmerman, Vice President of Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants, in response to my August 2017 column highlighting new varieties from Cultivate. We discovered a shared sentiment. Both of us, she a grower and I a public horticulturist, find ourselves increasingly cynical about the present state of new varieties, even as we yearn optimistically for alternatives. Even the alternatives seem to bait our optimism, given the narrow chances that genuine breakthrough innovations have of becoming mainstream (for reasons often more extrinsic, like supply chain dysfunction, than intrinsic, like outstanding disease resistance). Raker-Zimmerman raised an initial thought in that email that intrigued me: What is the tipping point for a new variety?

“We do such a disservice to our consumers by constantly inundating them with new products,” she says. “They never get a chance to truly understand a variety before they tear it out. It is a problem in a production greenhouse as well, as we can never truly master how to grow it.”

It makes me wonder if the gross total pipeline feeding new innovations to the consumer market has any real tipping point at all. (That may just be rhetorical cynicism, too).

Time to Market Determines Value Too Often

With such a commodity-based approach, the value of a new product seems scaled on how quickly producers add it to their lines as opposed to the value it might actually have at the point of consumption. (Now, I’m serious).

Why haven’t we created strong value propositions from innovation through consumption? Why are varieties simply sold as generic placeholders in a production line?

“For me, a truly new and exciting introduction needs to be a breeding breakthrough in a current class or an entirely new class of plants,” Raker-Zimmerman says. “Take Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath.’ This certainly classifies as a new introduction, meaning a unique variety with no real comparison currently on the market.”

Celosia-Dragon’s-Breath-Sakata-Ornamentals
Celosia ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (Sakata Ornamentals) is a unique variety with no comparison on the market.

However, ‘Dragon’s Breath’s’ unique proposition as a fall crop became its own fatal flaw, or at least a delimiting factor to its initial introduction.

“Sakata positioned this item for fall sales, but didn’t have the culture down to make this plant do what they promised it would,” Raker-Zimmerman says.

There would seem to be a slim margin for hype in horticulture, but the ledger is in a strong position. Marketing sells, and while I’m not dubious of a lot of new variety messaging, I think it’s often predicated on a limited scope of evaluation. Major brands can afford extensive trials, which they leverage to corporate and consumer advantage. Smaller companies do the best they can, often with earnest intentions. It all takes time, and time costs money.

Making new plants isn’t easy — just ask a plant breeder.

The Journey From Innovation to Marketable Product

Jim Ault, Director of Ornamental Plant Research and Manager of Chicagoland Grows at the Chicago Botanic Garden, has carved out a career on the edge, innovating within new product categories (can anyone say Echinacea) and letting the industry advance them. I asked Dr. Ault to weigh in on what innovation looks like to an innovator. When does a new breeding innovation become justifiably new enough to bring to market? How does, say, a baptisia or an aster, his recent tradecraft, earn the rank of a new and distinctive plant?

“Whenever I breed with a new group, I try to assemble a representative collection of the species, hybrids, and cultivars within that group to compare my hybrids against,” Ault says. “I only decide to introduce one of my selections when it can be favorably compared to the current introductions in the marketplace.”

Ault lists off any number of improvements aiming for the largest complement at any one time: cultural adaptability, cold hardiness, heat and drought tolerance, disease resistance, and of course, various ornamental attributes like improved habits, better flower coverage, novel flower colors, improved or unique fragrances, and sturdier stems.

Less and Best Versus More and Mediocre

So, when does a variety favorably compare enough? What sends it out the door? Ault says it comes down to diminishing returns, such as newer hybrids that are no longer an improvement over previous selections, or when the breeding proves too difficult to advance further due to fertility issues, for example. There’s something refreshing about those resolutions, to think that the capacity we have to develop something might reach a foreseeable end beyond which crop improvement becomes only an academic exercise without much in the way of consumer value.

If only that was a consensus opinion, we might have less and best instead of more and (slightly) better.

“If someone tries to sell me one more damn petunia, calibrachoa, impatiens, or bidens as the next best thing, I think I might throat punch them,” jokes Raker-Zimmerman. “I’m still floored at how much market share the Wave petunias have when it has been shown time and time again that they are not the superior genetics in that class,” she says. “But, they have the name, and then a company like mine, that wants to offer the best genetics possible to its customers, gets caught in a Catch-22. Do we offer what people are asking for or offer the superior genetics?”

If only those were one in the same.

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7 comments on “Kelly Norris: Why We Need to Reevaluate the New Plant Threshold

  1. Oh so true! There is nothing wrong with using newer annuals but I do not want them tested out on my clients. Field tests are rigorously tended. As long as we change out locations or varieties every several years there should not be a problem with using older and usually hardier plants except for putting breeders out of a job.

  2. Will anyone ever ask how all these changes influence the environment the plant will be put into it? Altering ornamental characteristics, for example, will alter how or if insects can use the plant. Then there’s the larger community, including the soil. I’m not sure we need new plants — unless plants are simply new shoes or the latest iphone.

  3. Breeding a plant that has been historcally grown from seed and making it reproducable only from cuttings increases its cost at retail 10 fold. How many McDonald’s Big Macs are sold at $3.50 versus gourmet burgers at $35? Yes, the new variety is superior but is it worth ten times more to the consumer?

    I would love to see someone do a study at retail, side by side, say with a celosia from seed and one from cuttings. Does the consumer see the value?

    1. Tina, great points! Exactly the kinds of questions innovators should be asking (perhaps Sakata did and took the gamble… ten times more and in fall? Appears they must have…)

  4. This strikes me as incredibly negative. In every other industry, constant innovation is not just encouraged but expected. Why should we be different? Why shouldn’t we stay as dynamic and exciting as they do in the world of smartphones, medical advancements, space travel? We should encourage each other to take measured risks and challenge our assumptions, not maintain the same dull status quo your article advocates for. I’m not saying every grower and retailer should throw caution to the wind with every single new variety that comes along, but the attitude you support in your article here *will* stifle our growth – as individual businesses and as an industry. Fear and being set in our ways won’t foster growth or improvement – and if you’re not growing and improving your business, you’re shrinking.

    “Do we offer what people are asking for or offer the superior genetics?” – if we have superior genetics, it’s our responsibility to communicate that in a way that resonates with everyone on the supply chain. It’s never been easier or more affordable to tell a plant’s story and make the case for new introductions. We need to stop making excuses and be as creative, innovative, and daring as other industries in our marketing and our products.

    1. Thanks for your feedback! You make great points which I agree with entirely, so I apologize if you read the column otherwise. I’m absolutely not advocating or permissioning anything about the status quo…that’s what I’m writing against (see “Both of us, she a grower and I a public horticulturist, find ourselves increasingly cynical about the present state of new varieties, even as we yearn optimistically for alternatives.”) We should absolutely pursue constant innovation and challenge ourselves as an industry to higher standards of what makes the cut and the objectives that create the most value for the consumer (see “Why haven’t we created strong value propositions from innovation through consumption? Why are varieties simply sold as generic placeholders in a production line?” and “the value of a new product seems scaled on how quickly producers add it to their lines as opposed to the value it might actually have at the point of consumption”). Innovation isn’t just about quantity, which right now is how horticulture defines innovation. More is not more, in our case.

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