Genetic Modification of Ornamental Shrubs

The phrase genetically modified has come to mean that the DNA of a plant or animal has been modified using recombinant DNA technology; gene splicing by means of a gene gun and a gene transporting viruse. To many it is a frightening prospect that man should play God, but people have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of agriculture, if not before. The simple act of collecting seeds for replanting has given us new and improved strains of heavier fruiting plants. For years we have been selecting, culling, isolating and transferring pollen, all which have changed the world in ways we rarely think about. 

Plant breeding using tradition methods, and the principles first developed by Gregor Johann Mendel, have served human-kind well. Our stomachs are full and our gardens are more colorful because man has genetically modified thousands of organisms. This is especially true in the world of ornamental garden plants.    

There is an orange forsythia, but I created these with Photoshop

Sure, there have been a few forays into transgenic ornamentals. I once saw an orange flowered forsythia in France. Beet genes had been inserted into its DNA, but not to worry, the plant is under lock and key and will never be released. The Japanese used gene transfer to created a blue rose, but It's only sold as a cut flower and not as a garden plant. These are rare examples of transgenic ornamentals. The truth be told, traditional breeding is easier and plenty powerful. We have just seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of traditional plant breeding. 

Take a look at the picture below. While most people would not recognize that it's a hydrangea, it is or native form of Hydrangea arborescens or smooth hydrangea. This is a plant I saw while hiking in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Not too spectacular, is it?

This unassuming plant is the starting point for many popular garden hydrangeas that you know and love. Through traditional breeding, it has been turned into a wide array beautiful garden plants. Just look at what has been has done with this shrub.

White Dome has very large lacy flowers
'Hayes Starburst'  was selected for its highly doubled flowers 

'Annabelle' is one of the most well known hydrangeas. It has large round blooms

Incrediball hydrangea is an improved 'Annabelle' with larger flowers and stronger stems 

Once in a while nature lends a hand in the breeding process. Annabelle was discovered in the wild as a naturally occurring mutation. There are three pink flowered variants of Hydrangea arborescens and I believe all were discovered in nature. 'Pink Pincushion', 'Eco Pink Puff' and 'Wesser Falls' all resemble the wild-type I showed you in the first picture, except that each has a bit of pink coloration in their flowers. While none of these selections are all that attractive, they were exactly what plant breeders needed to make the next big step.

Here are the crosses that lead to the creation of Invincibelle Spirit Hydrangea

Two of these pink variants along with 'Annabelle' were used to create the plant labeled here a F1B. The breeder then crossed siblings in this generation to create the first ever pink Annabelle hydrangea called called Invincibelle 'Spirit'.  

Invincibelle 'Spirit' 
All of this genetic modification resulted by selecting, culling, isolating and traditional plant breeding techniques. Toss in a bit of natural occurring mutation and an unassuming shrub is changed in ways we could hardly image. And the great thing about this is that we have only just begun to see the power of traditional plant breeding.

Double Play Big Bang Spiraea

Not a bad looking shrub, especially in spring.

In the summer the foliage turns golden-yellow, while the new growth continues to emerge an attractive orange-red. The plant forms a dense ball about knee high. 

The late spring flowers are much larger than typical.  

Double Play® Big Bang Spiraea is an attractive garden plant. It was introduced last year so there should be finished plants at better retailers this spring.  Look for them in the distinctive white container with the Proven Winners logo.  

This is the third variety introduced into the Double Play® Series. Double Play Gold and Double Play® Artist are also noted for their improved flowers and foliage. Wholesale growers can buy liners from Spring Meadow Nursery at 1-800-633-8859.   

What's New and Exciting?

The question I get all the time is "What's new and exciting?"  But with so many plants in development it's hard to pick just a few. So I typically respond with varieties that are looking good at the moment.

After a heavy rain this morning the sun came out and I had a quick walk through the garden. I just got back from the California Pack Trials so a lot has changed while I was gone. The magnolias are looking great. I have a yellow variety called 'Butterflies' that is just stunning right now. 'Goldfinch' is just about to break bud. Everything is so early this year, it's hard to believe it is early April. 

The Show Off forsythias are still looking great. It's a plant that gets a reaction from everyone that sees them in bloom. The flowers are just packed up and down the stem. No one believes me when I tell them how much I like this series. I kid you not these plants are special, especially the little Show Off Sugar Baby which is about the height of a daffodil. 

Show Off Forsythia

Show Off Sugar Baby 

'Amy Cotta', a new dwarf version of PJM Rhododendron, is favorite of mine. This cute little Rhododendron has smaller leaves than PJM and is a bright ball of purple when in flower.

Rhododendron 'Amy Cotta' 

Quince is in peak here in Michigan. The Double Take series is really looking great. This year I noticed that the orange opens first, followed by Scarlet and then Pink. The thing I like about these plants is that the large blooms last much longer than those of the typical quince. Growers like that too. I think it's because they have so many petals.

Double Take Orange Storm

Double Take Scarlet Storm

Double Take Pink Storm

The shrubs at the Pact Trials got me excited. We never seem to get very much press on our flowering shrubs, so I guess I'll have to do it myself. Here are a few that caught my eye.

Let's Dance Big Easy is one of my favorites, but as the breeder I am a bit biased. It has really big flowers that glow as they open with shades of green and pink then mature to a rich pink. People are going to be amazed by the size of these blooms.

Let's Dance Big Easy

Tuff Stuff Hydrangea was the surprise hit of the Proven Winners Shrub display. It is a new form of Hydrangea serrata a species which is native to the colder regions of Japan, Korea and China. The contrasting colors and the doubled flowers give this plant a lot of charm.

Tuff Stuff Hydrangea 

I am a big fan of Chris Warner's Oso Easy Roses. Oso Easy Mango Salsa is the newest addition to the series. Its flowers emerge orange, and then change to pink to give you a festive happy feeling. Our Canadian customers claim they are hardy to zone 3, but I'll list them zone 4 until we have a few more years of data to better judge them. Regardless, they are carefree, low growing roses that give you lots of color with very little effort.  

Oso Easy Mago Salsa Rose
I really like the Bloom-A-Thon azaleas. While you can get them in red, pink and lavender, I prefer Bloom-A-Thon White. The pure white flowers contrast nicely against the dark green, glossy foliage. It's the most compact plant in this series of continuous flowering azaleas.

Bloom-A-Thon White Azalea

So there you have it.  Check back later and I'll let you know what else is new and exciting in the world of flowering shrubs. 

The Golden Age of Plants and Technology

truly believe that we live in the Golden Age of technology and gardening. Just think about it. With inexpensive flight, we now have access to plants from around the world.  With the formation of the European Union and the unification of plant patent laws, plant breeders can now make a living developing new plants - and we benefit from lots of new plants.  With the creation of the internet, Pinterest, and e-Harmony we can connect with gardeners and plant geeks around the world.  With Wikipedia, the Plant Hunter blog and GardenWeb we now have access to the most massive library of gardening information right at our finger tips.  And with a wide array of garden centers, online mail order nurseries and QVC we can buy just about any plant we want with very little effort.  What a great time we live in!

The Lo & Behold Series butterfly bush  

And if you're amazed at how the phone has changed in the last 20 years from the big, black Bell and Howell to the itty-bitty iPhone, consider what has happened to the big, bad butterfly bush. The once large, rangy, seedy shrub is now a cute, cuddly compact shrub sans seeds that reblooms without dead-heading. 

Lo & Behold 'Blue Chip' opened up new ways to use butterfly bush

While Steve Jobs had the vision for the iPhone, Dr. Dennis Werner had a vision for a new breed of Buddleia. His vision is Lo & Behold - a brightly colored series of dwarf butterfly bush and just like the iPhone his vision is now reality.  To the casual observer the iPhone and the Lo & Behold series might seem to be overnight success stories, but both inventions took years of testing, trialing and hard work to create. Greatness takes time, but in the end it's worth the wait; both inventions are now praised by critics for their award winning low profile and superior aesthetics.    

Lo & Behold now comes in white with 'Ice Chip'

But there are also many differences between the iPhone and Lo & Behold butterfly bushes. Unlike the iPhone which has been criticized for containing dangerous chemicals, the Lo & Behold series is an environmentally friendly series of seedless selections that are non-invasive. These plants will not hurt the environment. Unlike the iPhone which is produced in China, Lo & Behold is grown locally. And instead of releasing greenhouse gases these little guys sequester carbon and emit pure oxygen. You can grow these shrubs without any guilt. It's even better for the earth than driving a Prius. Honest.

Black Knight on left, Lo & Behold seed on right

From a health standpoint you need not worry about microwaves and the potential for brain tumors with the Lo & Behold series.  Rather, it is well documented that using these and other plants have many positive health benefits

Lo & Behold 'Purple Haze dwarf butterfly bush
But perhaps the best thing about the Lo & Behold series compared to the iPhone is that these beautiful new plants are a much better value.  These cool new butterfly bushes may cost a tad more than the old models, but they cost substantially less than the $200-$400 that an iPhone will set you back.  And while the iPhone is obsolete within a few short years, these little beauties will get better with each passing year.  The fragrant flowers bloom non-stop from mid-summer right up until frost without any need to dead-head the old flowers.  Just give them a small charge of slow release fertilizer in the spring and they're good to go for an entire year.

There are lots of great new apps for Lo & Behold 

Many early adapters rave about all the new apps for these little shrubs.  Their petite size allows you to use them in containers, around decks and even as a ground cover. Some people have reportedly used them in mixed hanging baskets. The apps are endless! And while you do not get Angry Birds with the Lo & Behold series, you and your kids will love the happy hummingbirds and beautiful butterflies that come free with every Lo & Behold purchase.  

                    This is awesome. I need this!                          

Evelyn Lauder, A Real Life Hero Dies at 75

I was saddened to hear the news this morning that EvelynLauder had died after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was the co-creator of the Pink Ribbon campaign and founder of The Breast Cancer Research Foundation

Under her guidance The Breast Cancer Research Foundation raised over $350 million for cancer research while maintaining an A+ rating from CharityWatch and being the only  cancer organization to receive Charity Navigator's highest rating of four-stars for eight consecutive years. She was a woman with vision and integrity! 

I had the pleasure meeting Mrs. Lauder in New York through the Proven Winners InvincibelleSpirit Campaign for BCRF. She and the Foundation staff were thrilled that garden centers and nurseries across North America had teamed up to support breast cancer research by hosting Pink Day fundraisers. She was also surprised when we raised over $440,000 in just two years. 

Pink Day at DeGroots Nursery in Ontario, Canada

It was my hope to see her again when we reached our one million dollar goal and to present her with one of those big cardboard checks. She would have been so pleased. Not just for the donation, but because an entire industry had joined together with her in the fight against breast cancer. She would have said "Thank you, to everyone involved, to all of the growers and to all the employees of the 160 plus garden centers that hosted Pink Day events."  

Thank you Evelyn, for inspiring us all!

Otten Bros. Garden Center & Landscaping, Inc.  Long Lake, MN

I didn't have to travel far to find these new plants

You don't have to get on a plane and travel to an exotic location to find great new plants. Here in West Michigan we are blessed with many fine nurseries that develop or introduce new plants. The relatively mild climate, an abundance of water and our Dutch heritage have all contributed to the local nursery industry.

Walters Gardens, which is located about 20 minutes south, in Zeeland, Michigan, has a long history of introducing new perennials. Walters is introducing some 30 new plants under the Proven Winners brand in 2012. Here are some of my favorites.     

DECADENCE™ ‘Blueberry Sundae’

Baptisia is one of my favorite perennials. It is adaptable, easy to grow and once established quite drought tolerant. The Decadence series brings us an array of vibrant colors, attractive blue-green foliage and a more compact plant that is better suited for the garden.

  • Spikes of deep indigo blue blooms provide superior floral display from late spring to early summer
  • Blue-green foliage forms a more compact, uprightmound with excellent branching
  • Low maintenance and drought-tolerant
  • Vigorous grower
  • Zones 4-9
  • 36" height; 30-36" spread
  • Part to full sun
DECADENCE™ ‘Cherries Jubilee’

  • Unique flower color features deep maroon buds that open to bicolor maroon and yellow blooms
  • Secondary branching on the flower stems makesthis variety especially floriferous
  • Superior floral display from late spring to early summer
  • Well-branched stems form a bushy, upright spreading mound of foliage that is relatively short for Baptisia
  • Zones 4-9
  • 30-36" height; 36" spread
  • Part to full sun
DECADENCE™ ‘Dutch Chocolate’

  • Rich velvety chocolate-purple blooms on upright stems provide superior floral display from late springto early summer
  • Foliage remains densely compact as the plant matures, making it ideal for smaller urban gardens
  • Leaves start lower on the stems, covering the base of the plant better than other Baptisias
  • Low maintenance and drought-tolerant
  • Zones 4-9
  • 30-36" height; 24" spread
  • Part to full sun
DECADENCE™ ‘Lemon Meringue’

  • Spikes of lemon-yellow blooms provide superior floral display from late spring to early summer
  • Forms an upright, vase-shaped mound of attractive blue-green foliage
  • Long, charcoal-colored stems offer a stunning contrast to the lemon flowers
  • Vigorous grower
  • Zones 4-9
  • 36" height; 36" spread
  • Part to full sun

Hosta ‘Empress Wu’

I'm crazy about plants with bold foliage and Hosta Empress Wu is in my mind a most have perennial. Weeds don't stand a chance against this large leafed beauty.

  • Huge, thick, dark green, deeply veined leaves can measure 18" wide and long
  • Strong, upright habit forms a massive clump topped with pale reddish-violet flowers in early to midsummer
  • Zones 3-9
  • 3-4' height; 5-6' spread
  • Part to full shade
‘Autumn Frost’

Don't you just love the foliage on this plant. Autumn Frost is a bold plant that offers gardeners season long color. 

  • Leaves emerge frosty blue with a bright yellow, extra wide margin that lightens to creamy white during the summer
  • Forms a medium-sized mound topped with light lavender flowers in mid to late summer
  • Zones 3-9
  • 12" height; 24" spread
  • Part to full shade
Wedding Ring Boxwood

Wedding Ring boxwood comes from a small nursery down the road in Spring Lake, Michigan. There are other variegated boxwood out there but none are as hardy and attractive as this compact boxwood. Its rich glossy green foliage has a lime margin that matures to gold as summer progresses. It holds its color well in summer and winter. This is an excellent addition to formal gardens, or as a year-round accent plant in any home landscape.

  • Huge, thick, dark green, deeply veined leaves can measure 18" wide and long
  • Strong, upright habit forms a massive clump topped with pale reddish-violet flowers in early to midsummer
  • Zones 5-9
  • 1-3' height; 2-3' spread
  • Part sun to shade
North Star Boxwood

This cold hardy boxwood comes from the same nursery as Wedding Ring. It is a dense globe that requires little if any pruning to form a low, dense, thick hedge. Shiny dark green leaves maintain good winter color. Use NORTH STAR™ as a low-growing hedge, or even to create the borders of a formal herb garden. It’s a beautiful evergreen that will provide four seasons of enjoyment in the landscape. Plus deer won't eat it!

  • Dark green foliage remains attractive though the winter
  • Extra hardy and dense growth habit
  • Zones 5-9
  • 2-3' height; 2-3' spread
  • Full sun to part shade
Pinky Bells Abelia

This flowering shrub originates even closer to home as it is a plant that I hybridized here at Spring Meadow Nursery. It is a cross between Abelia Bumblebee and Abelia Little Richard. This resulted in a compact plant with the largest flowers I've ever seen on Abelia. The flower buds are purple and open to a purplish-pink. 

    • Big, colorful flowers mid-summer to fall. Attractive reddish new growth.
    • Extra strong root system and dense growth habit
    • Zones 6-9
    • 1-3' height; 2-3' spread
    • Full sun to part shad

Why Madonna Loathes Hydrangeas

Madonna was caught on camera emphatically stating that she “loathes” hydrangeas. And while some have criticized her for her harsh words, I don’t begrudge her. After all, she was only expressing a view shared by millions of people. Yes, millions for people loathe hydrangea. So how can it be that a beautiful flowering shrub evokes such disdain? It’s simple, really. For years, Martha Stewart and her East Coast friends have shown us an endless stream of outrageously beautiful hydrangeas, covered with big, colorful blooms - but they failed to tell us something important. We need to move to Cape Cod to get them to flower.  That’s right, you have to move to the coast to get hydrangeas to bloom like they do in the magazines! That’s because these bigleaf hydrangeas, Hydrangea macrophylla, have evolved in the mild maritime climate of coastal Japan. These plants detest the harsh continental climate of the Midwest with its wacky spring weather that ping-pongs between 85 and 20 degrees; their flower buds swell up and are zapped like flies in an electric bug killer. The dirty little secret is that we don’t live in Japan, or Cape Cod, or the Hamptons, and our climate is perfectly suited for killing hydrangea flower buds. This is why Madonna is so pissed off!  She’s sick and tired of being teased with the promise of beautiful, bodacious blooms only to be fooled, faked, and frustrated by season after season of flowerless foliage.  

Some would argue that the new reblooming hydrangeas have solved the problem. Sure, the industry has selected and hybridized remontant (reblooming) varieties such as Endless Summer®, Forever & Ever®, Mini Penny® and the remarkable Let’s Dance® series, but have we really solved the problem?  Are people suddenly happy with their hydrangeas?  Has Madonna changed her tune?  No.  Not really, because while all of these hydrangeas rebloom to some degree or another, they typically don’t live up to expectations.

The problem remains that our crazy spring weather kills the old-wood flower buds (or stems) of these new varieties just as well as it killed the buds (and stems) of the old varieties. Unless we have an unusually mild spring or lots of snow-cover, the flower buds are killed and you don’t get the reblooming flowers until late summer or fall.  And this sparse, late season flower display looks nothing like the June blooms  they get in Cape Cod.  No wonder Madonna loathes hydrangea: she’s from Michigan, not the East Coast!    

What Madonna doesn’t know (and Martha never tells us) is that there are other species of hydrangea that are adapted to our crazy climate and that flower reliably every year. My dear Madonna, here are some hydrangeas that will satisfy all your needs and change the way you feel about this shrub:

Limelight Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’) is hardy from Maine to Mobile, Alabama. It even thrives in Madonna’s hometown of Saginaw, Michigan. The flowers emerge in mid-summer a rich lime-green, lighten as the summer progresses, then turn shades of pink and green in autumn. And just like you, this plant is adored by millions of raving fans. If you want a smaller version of the same plant, try Little Lime™ Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Jane’ ppaf). It has all the same wonderful attributes of ‘Limelight,’ but at about one-third the size.

Madonna, since you sang “Incredible” (and dress the way you do), you are certain to fall in love with a hydrangea called Incrediball® (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Abetwo’). 

You’ll love its big, sexy blooms and stiff stems. This improved ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea is rugged, fool-proof and will flower for “Everybody.” You’ll appreciate its artistic flower coloration that starts out bright green, matures to pure white and then ages to a rich kelly-green. The show begins in mid-summer and last through winter as the flowers remain attractive even after the snow flies. This super hardy hydrangea thrives in full sun and is pretty much guaranteed to flower every year.  

I think you should also grow Invincibelle® Spirit II Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘NCHA2’). This plant is a game changer, just like you. It’s the very first pink-flowered form of the ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea, which in layman’s terms means you’ll get lots of colorful pink blooms, year after year, even in chilly zone 3. A single mature plant can produce well over 100 blooms.  If you want even more flowers, just prune off the old ones and watch as every stem flowers a second time! No other hydrangea gives a repeat performance like this one. Seriously, have you ever given an encore like that?

Madonna, I know that you’re a big supporter of breasts and breast cancer research. So you’ll appreciate that Invincibelle Spirit Hydrangea supports an important cause. Each plant sold raises a $1.00 for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. As part of the national Invincibelle® Spirit Campaign, garden centers have joined the “Celebration” by hosting “Invincibelle Spirit Pink Days” to raise additional funds for breast cancer research. How can you loathe a hydrangea that has generated over $200,000 for the cause?  I urge you to join the campaign, visit to learn more.

The only hydrangea that helps find a cure.

Now I don’t want to preach, but come on, Madonna! From one Michigander to another, please “Don’t Tell Me” you loathe hydrangeas anymore.  Get “Into The Groove” and “You’ll See” that if you just “Promise To Try” these hydrangeas they’ll “Open Your Heart.”  They’re “True Blue” plants - so give hydrangeas just “One More Chance.”