Flowering Shrub Evolution

As the Product Develop Manager at Spring Meadow Nursery my main responsibility is to identify new and superior plants for the Proven Winners ColorChoice flowering shrub line. These are exciting times for me because never before has so much effort been put into the development of shrubs. Breeders, nurseryman and even amateur gardeners have begun to see the potential of shrubs and are actively seeking improvements. In my opinion the results are amazing. These new plants are changing the way we garden, landscape and produce plants. Long thought of as the “bones” of the garden, shrubs are now the ornamentation too. Once the backdrop for perennials and annuals, a new breed of flowering shrubs have proven themselves as colorful and as showy as any herbaceous plant.

Think for a moment about how Endless Summer has changed the way we view Hydrangea or how Wine & Roses has influenced our old perception of Weigela as a one season plant. These are but a few of the better known examples but there are many more subtle, yet significant changes taking place over a wide range of species. Growers and Retailers need to understand these changes if they hope to benefit and meet demand. For example when I googled the plant name Leptodermis oblonga three years ago I got zero responses. Today I got 1,710 references including long discussions about the plant by gardeners communicating in forums. Did you know this great little shrub that blooms all summer long? Obviously the word has gotten out to gardeners.

Not all of the plants causing shifts in the market are new. Some have been around for years but because of changing times have found an audience. Concorde barberry was an obscure little plant developed at Wavecrest Nursery in Fennville, Michigan. Now with the increased interest in invasive species and as the problems encountered on the East Coast mount, ‘Concorde’ turns out to be a winner. Not only does it have great rich purple leaf color and a dwarf mounded habit, it is also environmentally friendly, hardly producing a seed. It turns out there are many environmentally safe alternatives when we start looking at the cultivars we currently grow. This niche will get even larger as researchers begin to introduce new sterile cultivars. They’re coming, but will states ban them before they are introduced? Let’s hope not.

What’s driving this explosion of new and improved shrubs? First, there is intense competition at retail. Savvy independent garden centers know they have to differentiate their stores from the big boxes. New and improved plants are a clear strategy to set a garden center apart from the chains. Big box stores have been more concerned about price than the actual product. They won’t pay extra for superior genetics because they don’t understand plants in general. Heck, many have not yet figured out that plants need water to live. The point is that independents understand what makes a good plant and they are actively looking for new products to compete and win in the marketplace.

The second driving force behind new plants has been the increased use of plant protection. Plant breeders can now make a return on their breeding investment. Canada has a new breeders’ rights law and Europe now has EU wide breeders’ rights system. In the U.S., people who have long opposed the plant patent system now see that patents, if used properly, can benefit everyone. Open licensing and returning a portion of the royalties to marketing the plants have created new value for breeders, growers and the retailers. And gardeners are getting better plants.

Another driving force behind the development of new shrubs was the rapid growth of the perennial market. Perennials helped to grow a new crop of gardeners, particularly women gardeners. Before perennials, the yard was mostly a man’s domain. As perennials came into vogue women learned that the garden could be more than just annuals and that gardening was not as complicated as the books and magazines make it out to be. As the perennial market matured, shrubs were the next natural step. After all shrubs are perennials, they just happen to have woody stems. The advent of container grown shrubs also helped the cause. Clean and reasonable in size, containerized shrubs met the needs of today’s gardener.

Lastly, success drives success. The success of new shrubs has awakened plant breeders, nurseries, retailers and gardeners to the value of flowering shrubs. Reblooming Viburnum, dwarf Clethra, ground covering Forsythia, yellow Spiraea, purple Sambucus, dwarf Buddleia and reblooming Syringa are just a few of the recent advances. It often starts with one new plant and builds rapidly. When I was in college some 25 years ago people laughed at me for putting Clethra alnifolia in a landscape plan. Then along came Clethra ‘Hummingbird,’ the first dwarf form of Sweetspire. It was an obscure plant that Fred Galle of Callowway Gardenshad discovered and for the most had part forgotten. Then Richard Feist, an Callowway intern at the time, saw the plant and bells went off. With the permission of Galle he registered the plant as Hummingbird and then wrote an article in Field Notes. All of a sudden Clethra clones start coming out of the woodwork; ‘Rosea’, ‘Pink Spires’, ‘Creal’s Callico’, ‘Fern Valley Pink’, ‘Hokey Pink’, ‘Cottondale’, ‘September Beauty’, ‘Ruby Spice’, ‘Sweet Suzanne’, ‘Sixteen Candles’, ‘White Dove’ and ‘Sherry Sue’ just to name a few. And so it goes with most species. Just wait until you see the next generation of reblooming Hydrangea macrophylla. Dr. Michael Dirr and breeders around the world are working like mad to improve upon Endless Summer. And so it goes, we are all winners because plants are improving at an exponential rate.

New and superior plants and the fundamental changes taking place in the market represent opportunities for nurseries and garden centers. There is real unfulfilled demand for superior varieties and consumers are willing to pay extra for them. The most commonly asked question I hear from retailers and from gardeners is “Where can I find them?”

In my next post I will list some plants that have had or will have a significant impact on the shrub market. These plants are changing the way we view shrubs. Check back next time and find out how many of these plants you know.

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