Learn How Unconventional Plants Can Be Hidden Gems

Clematis Amber
Clematis ‘Amber’ (Taylors Clematis, U.K.) opens up opportunities for growers while maximizing retail appeal. It took Plant of the Year honors at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Full disclosure — I’m going to beat up on petunias again, if only en route to a bigger point. Mea culpa. As a professional plant geek, it’s no surprise that the lens I use to evaluate new plants skews toward novelty, style, and interest that might differ from the prototypical consumer. Might. (I’m convinced we underestimate and misjudge the motivations our consumers bring to horticulture, and in so doing, we fail to connect with their wants and needs in a genuine way.)

I can suspend my own biases, though. I may not love most new petunias that hit the market, but I understand the forces that generate them and bring them to market. I understand that the mass market loves them, just as I understand that more burgers are sold at McDonald’s every day by comparison to the local craft eateries that I’m more apt to frequent. The burgers are better at the latter. I also appreciate, with deference to my parenthetical sidebar, that we don’t serve just one consumer. We serve an audience difficult to calibrate when motivated so variously by affinities for branding, product value, price, and access in a globally accessible, locally conscious marketplace.

What I’ve always struggled to reconcile is the rather industry-centric notion that consumers consciously buy petunias (or any other mainstay) over the alternatives because of some lack of familiarity or ignorance to the value those alternatives have. We say “Oh, consumers will never buy that plant, because they don’t know what it is.” We seem to assume that their petunia consumerism is motivated by an all-knowing, overriding belief in the superiority of petunias. Wave probably has something to do with that, and for good reason — it performs. So maybe, petunias outshine their benchmates at point of sale. But maybe it’s because we want to sell petunias. There are consumers looking for more. These consumers are experience seekers.

An Unconventional Experience

Some breeders and plant development companies chart new territory with unconventional plant introductions that innovate on the edge, bring diversity to the marketplace and the landscape, and satisfy a craving that consumers have for uniqueness and personal expression.

Take a new craspedia from Danziger called ‘Golf Beauty.’ Sure, go ahead. “What the hell is craspedia?” Drumstick flower, billy buttons, or billy balls, in colloquial parlance. Why bring it to market? What does it do?

“The spectacular yellow-colored balls of craspedia are gaining momentum in the cut flower fields,” says Anat Gissin, Marketing Manager at Danziger. “We believe something similar will happen in the bedding plant market.”

The variety’s debut at California Spring Trials and Cultivate’16 seemed to confirm their hunch.

I asked Gissin to weigh in on how a novelty like this comes to market.

“This unique variety was introduced to the market as a result of our constant search for innovation and interesting varieties with added value,” she says. “We believe ‘Golf Beauty’ is the perfect product for every combination possible. [We] invest in the development of varieties that are beyond the standard,” Gissin says.

Clematis might not seem beyond standard, exactly, but any variety that isn’t a large-flowered hybrid is probably unfamiliar to most consumers. Cue Peter Van Rijssen of Concept Plants, a Netherlands-based new plant introduction company. Concept Plants recently brought to market a new cultivar of Clematis chiisanensis, hardly a mainstay, even with serious plant nuts (and yes, I have one). It’s called ‘Amber,’ from Taylors Clematis in the U.K., and took Plant of the Year honors at the Chelsea Flower Show this spring.

Craspedia Golf Ball Beauty (Danziger)
The spectacular yellow-colored balls of Craspedia are gaining momentum in the cut flower fields and bring diversity to the marketplace. Pictured in photo: Craspedia ‘Golf Ball Beauty’ (Danziger)

Winning that award “created a big buzz for ‘Amber,’ ” Van Rijssen says. “Within two years, we will be doing 50,000 units per year.”

He acknowledges that clematis are a bit of a specialty plant and a tricky sell to both growers and consumers.

“It’s driven by novelty. The breeder is always looking for perfection,” he says.

The consumer just wants an uncomplicated, summer-showy vine. Van Rijssen says he believes a breakthrough variety like this, which reblooms throughout the season and doesn’t require pruning, opens up new opportunities for growers while maximizing retail appeal.

“[‘Amber’] is easy to propagate, easy to flower, and has all the advantages that a clematis should have.”

The Gamble

With new forays come new risks, a tolerance for which can be a gamble in a low-margin, volatile marketplace. User-directed innovation, instead of merely innovating within the commercial pipeline, offers the greatest chance of breaking through and feeds a consumer class hungry for rich, novel experiences with new varieties. Those consumers will always spend more money than fair-weather gardeners because they intrinsically value plants and the experiences they have with them.

Independent breeder Joseph Tychonievich sees a brighter future for gladiolus as hardy perennials, instead of funeral cut flowers.

“I think they have been neglected for so long and wedged into just one sector,” he says.

His crop choice might strike some as unconventional or dead on arrival. Tychonievich says he believes gladiolus faded from general consumer interest because of the hassle of digging them up each season.

“I always want to think like a gardener,” Tychonievich says. “We think about what a plant does in the garden. Many companies think of propagation, shipping, etc.”

After several years of evaluating, he’s got cold-hardy selections in trials with an open-minded approach to how these varieties might appeal to consumers.

“They could go mainstream again, but it could be a special niche market with a higher profit margin even though you’re not selling in volume,” Tychonievich says. “They aren’t as trendy as they were, but I feel as an independent breeder, [focusing on unconventional plants] is what I have to do.”

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