The timing couldn’t be better to present Japanese flower breeder Suntory with our Medal of Excellence for Industry Achievement. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of its very first flower introduction in the Suntory collection–Surfinia, a vigorous vegetative petunia that swept the world like a tsunami by creating a whole new class of petunias, commanding a premium unheard of in seed counterparts.
Up until then, Suntory, a $14 billion global company based in Osaka, Japan, was primarily focused on food, beverage and lifestyle industries. The Suntory family’s roots trace back to 1899. In addition to having its own products, Suntory represents leading brands in Japan, including HÃ¤agen Dazs ice cream, Subway and Pepsi. Today, Suntory’s flower varieties are licensed in 24 countries. Bear Creek Gardens/Jackson & Perkins has been the master licensee for North America.
“Suntory was the original pioneer in the vegetative annuals breeding revolution,” says Brian Gold of Pineae Greenhouses, one of the first American licensees.
“Without Suntory’s leadership, it would be doubtful this entire class of plants would exist as it does today. The breeders at Suntory have truly had great vision and forward thinking.”
Suntory also has been praised for taking the high road, elevating product categories and creating value. “Flowers are not a commodity,” says Shigeru
Sarada, who directs Suntory’s flower division. “We are selling enjoyment and happiness. It doesn’t make sense to discount happiness.”
After petunias, the next class of annuals to be revolutionized was verbena, with vegetatively produced Tapien and Temari series, making stunning groundcovers and baskets. Then came a whole new genus with Million Bells calibrachoa. This line was a huge success. Today, calibrachoa are generically referred to as Million Bells.
“What made their varieties successful was they were truly newer versions of existing things,” says John Rader of EuroAmerican Propagators. “They took a petunia and created an amazing petunia on steroids! They broke the mold. That kind of vision was critical. They recognized the potential of calibrachoa, so not only were they working in existing classes but finding new stuff, too.”
The Suntory lines helped Proven Winners get started in the 1990s. “Early on, they were part of the explosion of our business,” Rader says. “They helped us do really well. Million Bells, Tapien, Temari and Surfinia got us off the ground initially. They helped the whole thing gain momentum.”
Today, Rader is most excited about the Senetti cinerarias bred by Dr. Kiyoshi Miyazaki. They have been a big hit in the United Kingdom. “Growers, retailers and consumers here have yet to discover what they can do,” Rader says. “They are a far advanced cineraria, just like with Surfinia. In addition to being a pot plant, Senettis are more versatile as outdoor bedding. They will rebloom and are longer living.”
Going For Garden Performance
Suntory isn’t a company that rushes to introduce new varieties each year. It conducts extensive trials all over the world. Conditions in Japan include hot, wet summers and cold, dry winters. Suntory also has a breeding partnership with Oasis Horticulture in Australia called Bonza, which led to the drought-tolerant Surdiva scaevolas.
Gold says Suntory’s focus on quality and longevity made their introductions succeed. “The Suntory variety selection model has always been putting the consumer first to provide products that will provide maximum quality and landscape performance,” he says.
Danny Takao of Takao Nursery, who produces the Sun Parasol mandevillas, says Suntory realizes it is consumer who are the ultimate judge of their breeding. “They understand all their breeding must have good garden performance to have value to the consumer, something some of the breeding programs forget,” Takao says. “In the central part of California, our temperatures swing from the low 30s in the winter to low 100s in the summer. Trialing and seeing for myself how well the plants performed throughout the year made me understand the garden performance Suntory breeds into plants.”
James Russell of Armstrong Growers, the largest independent garden center chain in the United States, has really gotten behind the Suntory lines and even has trucks with large pictures of Million Bells driving up and down the California coast.
“Suntory’s willingness to work with retailers to promote and build brand awareness has been the greatest asset in retail,” Russell says. “The people at Suntory are some of the most professional, likeable and innovative people in the horticultural business. Personal friendships are part of the package at Suntory.”