The Future Of Perennial Breeding

Pulmonaria 'Dark Vader' from Terra Nova Nurseries
Pulmonaria ‘Dark Vader’ from Terra Nova Nurseries

The world of perennial breeders was once associated with small, specialized growers and backyard breeders. While that community still populates the industry, larger commercial players have also entered this breeding arena.

The benefits of an evolving and growing breeder community begin with the ongoing influx of new perennial offerings.

“People have access to a huge variety of plants that never existed before,” says Tony Avent, co-owner and founder of Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. The Raleigh, N.C., retail nursery specializes in rare and unusual plants and serves to support the Juniper Level Botanic Garden and its research facility. “There’s been nothing to parallel what is available and here today. We currently add 2,000 new, unique plants to our trials every year. Those are insane numbers.”

Trialing For More Successful Perennials Breeding

Perennial patenting and licensing took off roughly 15 years ago, Avent says. First done by universities and botanic gardens, the business practice has crossed over into the breeding mainstream, encouraging the growing volume and pace of perennial innovation.

What remains critical to the future of perennial breeding is exhaustive and methodical trialing; yet practices have changed among some participants.

“Anytime you go from a low ebb to a high tide, people begin rushing product to market,” Avent says. “We’re seeing plants hitting the market that are not fully trialed; trialing has not kept up with the amount of breeding.”

When, after a few months, clients inquire about trialing outcomes, Avent tells them to call back in three to five years. Although the trialing pace picks up with breeder familiarity with particular varieties, by necessity it still takes time.

At Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc. of Canby, Ore., trialing has lasted upwards of 10 years, for example, with more than 1,000 pulmonaria hybrid seedlings that are spray-soaked with water bounced off a mildewed plant; seedlings susceptible to the bouncing mildew spores are destroyed. The process is repeated year after year until an absence of mildew predilection is achieved; only then can foliage and flower be considered. A different but equally long trialing process takes place with hosta, this time observing for sun and slug resistance.



“That’s the beauty of breeding: if something’s a problem, you breed away from it,” says Dan Heims, co-owner and president of Terra Nova Nurseries. To date, Terra Nova has introduced 800 annual and perennial plants.

Trialing is a building block for customer relations: gardeners want a plant to fulfill its claims to grow and thrive not just in one season, but over time. Shortened trialing protocols instill false expectations and ultimately failure when the plant cannot perform as promised.

“Everybody wins when gardeners become successful. They want to spend more time and money doing what made them successful,” Avent says.

The Gardening Generation – Today And Tomorrow

Even with an expectation of a boom in small-space gardening, there comes an expectation to “aggressively” use space, says Josh Schneider, a partner with Cultivaris North America. Based in San Diego, Calif., Cultivaris North America is an idea and project management company with a focus on ornamental product development.

With small-scale gardening come opportunities with ornamental grasses, heuchera and heucherella, the latter two offering beautiful color in the winter. Others are making use of container real estate year round, employing heuchera but also primula, ivy and tiarella.

“Carex generally is one of the ornamental grasses that are very versatile and easy to use in a container,” Schneider says. “Overall, though, container use is just getting started in the United States.”

Emerging and longtime gardeners live fast-paced lives with less time; thus follows their desire for convenient gardening. But, Schneider cautions, they incorrectly believe that perennial gardening takes less time; add to that a misplaced desire that perennials act like annuals.

“For example, Baptisia australis only flowers for two weeks but it is a spectacular two weeks,” he says. Unfortunately that brief but brilliant showing is considered a failure by this impatient population segment.

“Success is completely based on perception for your average uninitiated gardener,” Schneider says.

What Do They Want: Compact Or Tall?

Container gardening is a necessity for people living in small spaces.

“People are living in apartments and condominiums,” Heims says. “They don’t have gardens and they don’t want to invest in their rental properties’ gardens. You’ll never see that trend go down.”

More compact series of sedum, for example, are available, including ‘Touchdown Teak.’

Same goes for nepeta, which offers dwarf varieties like ‘Blue Lagoon.’ ‘Cat’s Meow’ grows a manageable 20 inches, reflecting a departure from expansive varieties. Additionally, new nepeta varieties are deer resistant and longer flowering.

But wait: enter Tony Avent, a self-proclaimed contrarian. “The trend is not moving away from tall plants,” he says. “People who are passionate gardeners and understand garden design have to have tall plants. Gardening is about creating spaces. It’s about creating spaces for wildlife. We need tall. We need big. We need flowering.”

Tall plant interest is evident in the strong sales of the genus colocasia, the third best-selling genera of plant at Plant Delights Nursery. ‘Thailand Giant Elephant Ear,’ which grows nine feet tall, was the fourth best-selling product in 2013, after a decade of being either being number one or two.

Another customer favorite is hosta ‘Empress Wu,’ growing four feet tall and nine feet wide.

“Its only claim to fame is it’s big. It is such a humongous seller,” Avent says.

Breeder Branding: Not Yet A Household Name

Heims says the gardener of the future will want more hand holding and more information and will have zero tolerance for inflated claims about plant capabilities. Nursery owners need to offer truthful advertising with lots of information and include displays that respond to desired solutions.

“They’re [customers] coming in and saying, ‘I have dry shade and I want a plant. I want a plant that is deer resistant. I want a plant that serves a purpose and is attractive,’” Avent says.

With a few exceptions, Knock Out Roses being one, customers are not overwhelmingly familiar with the breeders behind the plants. Terra Nova Nurseries offers plant tags, featuring its name, packed with needed point-of-purchase information and a scannable QR code offering yet more information. Still, branding efforts are most prominent at the trade level or with specific varieties leaving consumer awareness and loyalties in its infancy, Schneider says.

“It’s still generic — all of it,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential coming.”


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