A Good Idea and a Bit of Luck

Plant breeding starts with an idea. The idea is based on experience in the garden and by asking the rhetorical question – “Wouldn’t it be great if …….?”  In the case of Annabelle Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle') the statement would be - “Wouldn’t it be great if Annabelle had pink flowers?” or “Wouldn’t it be great if Annabelle had strong stems?”

Some ideas are unique and obscure, while others are quite common within the community of gardeners and growers. I suspect that anyone that has grown Annabelle hydrangea has had these same thoughts. But to make it happen you have to act.

The next step in plant breeding process is to determine if there are any other plants (cultivars, varieties or species) that can be utilized in the breeding process to bring in the traits you’re looking to incorporate. If that other plant(s) exists, and if the chromosome number is compatible, then you go to work.

Dr. Tom Ranney and Richard Olsen at NC State each thought it would be great if Annabelle had pink flowers and the end result was Invincibelle Spirit – the world’s first pink Annabelle hydrangea. Of course it took years of hard work, but the process was greatly helped by a bit of luck; Olsen discovered the perfect breeding partner for Annabelle. While hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Olsen discovered a Hydrangea arborescens with pink, lace-cap flowers which he named Wesser Falls.'  This was the key ingredient in creating Invincibelle Spirit.

Invincibelle Spirit Hydrangea

An Annabelle hydrangea with strong stems has been on everyone’s wish list since the plant was first put into cultivation by Dr. J. C. McDaniel in 1962. The wish came true in 2009 with the introduction of Incrediball Hydrangea. The story of Incrediball begins with White Dome Hydrangea (H. arborescens ‘Dardom’). White Dome was discovered by Wout Kromhout in a batch of seedlings at Hemelrijk, the estate of Robert and Jelena de Belder in Essen, Belgium. White Dome hydrangea is a beautiful plant with large, white, lace-cap flowers and thick, sturdy stems. It was the perfect breeding partner in my quest to create an Annabelle hydrangea with strong stems.  This was my first bit of luck.

White Dome Hydrangea

The next bit of luck appeared when we grew out the seedlings from our Annabelle x White Dome cross. While there was a good many seedlings with thick strong stems and mop-head flowers, one plant stood out among all the others. This plant had flowers that were even larger than those of Annabelle. To my amazement, the flower heads that got even larger as the plant matured over the next three years.

Incrediball Hydrangea

Two new breakthrough plants and both were born with an idea and little bit of luck. 

So I’ll ask you. How would you finish the statement “Wouldn’t it be great if …….?”


I've been invited to be on "Homegrown" XM radio show with Martha Stewart Living garden editor Tony Bielaczyc. This Thursday July 22, 1:15 pm est (Sirius 112 and XM 157). Topic: Summer Flowering Shrubs. Listen in.


  1. Wouldn't it be great...if there were a good enough supply of Incrediball to small, non-box store nurseries that they wouldn't have to charge a minimum of $30 a pop for it.

  2. Jon - Believe me, I wish there was more supply also. We work very hard breeding and finding new and better flowering shrubs. And when we introduce a new plant we try to explain to the growers that advantages of the new plants and encourage them to grow a lot - But many growers want to take a wait and see approach. I suspect that you will see the supply increase next spring.

  3. Wouldn't it be great if the Invincible Spirits sold at better nurseries looked as healthy at point of sale as they do in your publicity shots?
    All of the plant I have seen this season look skimpy and ragged. There is no lushness, no full bouquets and nothing about it to make me want to buy it. After all of the hype that I have read about it I am now disappointed.

  4. I've been including many a 'Blue Clips' Butterfly Bush in my landscape plans for clients just hoping I'll be able to find them for the install. I have REALLY enjoyed that plant and it has lived up to the hype for me.

    So what would be GREAT is if it came in more colors. I hear you're all working on it and I can't wait to buy it.

  5. Cynthia - Thanks for your comments and praise for Lo & Behold 'Blue Chip'. Dr. Werner is working on other colors and these will be coming to market shortly. His breeding has changed how we think of Buddleia and how we use it in the garden and landscape. More colors will be greatly anticipated.

  6. Allan - Hydrangea arborescens has never been a plant that looks good in a container, be it Annabelle or even White Dome. It is a plant that takes a year or two in the garden to mature and look it's best. As with all new plants, growers have a learning curve. I have seen that some growers doing a very good job while others not so much. I my opinion it is a very good plant, and I think you will agree once you've seen the plant established in the landscape.


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