New Frontiers In Breeding

Anticipation. Yes, it’s a popular Carly Simon song from the 1970s that was used in ketchup commercials, but it’s also what each California Spring Trials brings. The dates for this year’s event are a week earlier than usual, March 26-April 1.

Before we head out, we try to get a sense of what the big introductions will be. On the seed side, All-America Selections winners often are a reliable indicator. In January many of the European companies promote new varieties at the IPM show in Essen, Germany. We even got a glimpse of dwarf bougainvilleas Suntory presented at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition in Ft. Lauderdale. And Costa Farms’ trials in Goulds, Fla., near Miami are another opportunity to catch an early glimpse of what will be introduced in California.

 Spring Trials are a big investment and the world’s finest flower breeders and marketers are under a great deal of pressure to deliver breakthroughs versus more of the same each year. This is no easy task, given it can take five to 14 years to bring something truly new to market. When we visit the trials, most of the time, we’re sorting through the competitive positioning of “me toos.” But it’s the more distinctive specialties, breakthrough plants and creative marketing programs that make the trip worthwhile.

Who would have guessed the ornamentally delicious strawberries from ABZ Seeds would have been such a huge hit last year? It’s because there weren’t 10 other companies peddling strawberries. Floranova’s focus on patio vegetables and Ball’s reinvention of the Burpee brand showcase edibles, along with Hishtil’s herb and vegetable programs.

Each Spring Trials has its sleepers, too–plants that aren’t fully appreciated at the time of introduction but become important later after they prove themselves. Three that come to mind are euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ SunPatiens impatiens and Senetti pericallis.

The event has come a long way from seed annuals to encompass a broad spectrum of plants–blooming potted plants, vegetative annuals, perennials, grasses, shrubs, tropicals, succulents and edibles. It’s the ultimate product knowledge experience. Miss a year and miss a lot.

What are the possibilities for breakthroughs this year?

New colors are always a very visible accomplishment. Last year, Ball’s black petunias were a big hit and Westhoff’s yellow scaevola created interest as well. But as Doug Holden cautions in our Perspective interview on page 22, being first doesn’t mean anything if the plant can’t be delivered through growers’ production systems and perform for the end consumer.
New flower forms also capture attention. Examples include Selecta’s MiniFamous Double calibrachoas and its double-flowered osteospermums that will debut this year.

New product forms outside the realm of breeding also can make a big impact, like the multi-cutting liner trend that swept the industry the last three years. While Dömmen has secured the rights to multi-species liners through its Confetti patent (page 12), competitors will still have free reign to develop single-species liners, mixing colors of the same genus together, or the option of negotiating with Dömmen to be licensed for multi-species. This is new territory and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

The most cutting edge breeding is bringing the traits and performance we expect from annuals to perennials and shrubs–programmable production, flower power, extended bloom time, clean stock and compact and uniform growth habits. (See page 48) As a result, many familiar perennials are becoming annuals, like the showier rudbeckias on the market. Hardiness is an elusive trait. Trialing will become that much more important to ensure we’re delivering performance consumers expect.

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