Where do new plants come from?

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

I've just returned from one of the most enjoyable and inspirational events of my year, the Far West Show. This annual unveiling of the new plant varieties offered by the wholesale nursery industry is a chance to talk to the specialists in the many fields that nursery people and landscapers work in.

There are growers who have spent 50 years cultivating rhododendrons, to whom each variety is a lifelong friend.

Groundcovers and hardy perennials are shown as excitingly as any new car, and fertilizer manufacturers unveil even more exotic combinations of elements and compounds designed to provide exact amounts of the desired nutrients in various soil situations.

My favorites this year were the shrub introductions that focused on foliage colors, since we have had such a dark, monochromatic summer, and colorful combinations are so much easier to provide with foliage than with the fleeting flower season.

The thought of developing a foliage palette for the planted landscape that changed through the season as dramatically as the wild world does is enchanting.

There is a new forsythia, called "gold tide", that spreads quickly as a groundcover, with a chartreuse leaf and bright yellow blooms. We would rarely see the flowers since the spring frosts would probably nip them, but the bright yellowish-green sheet of color would really be a sight.

It will get about 15 inches tall and spread four feet. This will give us a much needed screen below the larger shrubs, and a color foil for blues and deep greens.

The only hydrangea that does well for us is the September blooming one called "P.G." or Paniculata grandiflora, a lovely nodding vanilla-colored, lilac -shaped flower.

The trouble is that by the time she blooms, most of the excitement of the garden scene has worn off and most people are getting ready to put theirs to bed. There are a couple of new introductions from Europe that may change that. One is a pink form called "pink diamond" that flowers two months earlier, and the other, "limeglo," is a lime green one that the breeder's pictures show as glowing in the dusk.

These reflect the process that new plant introductions follow. They are found usually by people in the business of growing a related species. A sharp eye notices one plant that seems a little different, and puts it aside for later examination.

Most unusual things turn out to be lost causes: 99.9 percent of all mutations are doomed to failure. It is only the very rare plant that has any merit, and thousands are gone through before a single desirable one is found.

Once some breeder or fancier chooses a selection they think has merit, the long introduction process begins. Any new plant must compete with hundreds of others at any one time for the attention of the national or international marketers. New plants are always interesting, but the task of predicting which will become part of the accepted palate and which will fade away is like reading palms. Just as most mutations are doomed, most new plants are short-lived enthusiasms. Remember the white marigold?

We in Alaska are less influential in this process than most gardening populations. Our needs are so limited and our numbers so small, that it is surprising we are even counted. It is only by looking at the spectrum of new offerings and hunting them down that we have any opportunity of getting them at all. If we just wait for them to show up in the mass market, we will never see them.

Thousands of heirloom breeds are kept alive by devoted followers, just like antique chicken varieties. They are all wonderful in their own ways, but lack of demand keeps them in their minor roles.

Our local experience with the February Daphne is one example. This shrub blooms while the snow is still deep. Its deep purple, incredibly fragrant blooms line the leafless stems, and passers-by can be seen turning their heads to seek out the source of the fragrance. There are dozens of these plants in the older neighborhoods, and we sought out and bought all we could find in the Pacific Northwest over the last 20 years. Lack of demand in the larger market areas kept it from being produced any longer. We hunted and searched for another source for years, and it was only by luck that we found it in another very cold location, and this time hopefully, we'll keep it coming.

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