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