Breeders Push Hybrids Into Production

Big Sky Echinacea Twilight, one of several varieties of coneflowers in novel colors.
Big Sky Echinacea Twilight, one of several varieties of coneflowers in novel colors. (Novalis - Novalis)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

If you think Detroit can't leave a product well enough alone, consider the frenetic world of plant breeding and production. Novelty is the green industry's driving force, and there are so many brands, lines and patented introductions today that it's tough to keep them straight.

A lot of factors are driving this innovation, including the need for a marketing edge for independent garden centers facing price-cutting competition from the mass merchandisers. But out of this chaos come some pretty handsome plants, and I admit to a good drool or two visiting plant displays recently organized by a trade group called Garden Centers of America.

Some of these plants have been on the market for a year or two; others are promised for next year or the year after. Independent garden centers can tell you if they have them, or plan to stock them.

Caryopteris is a valuable late-season shrub, covered in lavender-blue clusters of flowers in September and October. The one in my garden is old and, in spite of efforts to trim it back in June to promote bushiness, it feels a need to reach out and tickle the ankles. This would be okay, except you find yourself dancing with bees.

Enter two potential replacements, Petit Bleu and Grand Bleu. They look alike, though the former is supposed to grow to 24 inches, the latter to 36 inches. They are both more compact than the common hybrid, and would slot nicely into a small garden or a two- to three-foot gap in the border that needs fall interest. Most of all, they have clean, blue-green foliage, and an abundance of flowers that are an unusually rich blue.

The plant was bred not just to be smaller than before but bushier and with more flowers. "If you don't have one, you need one," said Danielle Smith, representing a brand of plants named Proven Winners. Seeing a massing of them at River Farm, the American Horticultural Society's garden and headquarters south of Alexandria, it was hard not to agree.

They would look good paired with orange or yellow fall bloomers, perhaps pansies or low-growing shrub roses, or plants with yellow-green foliage such as creepy jenny, spirea Mellow Yellow, variegated hostas or another new introduction on display at another show site in Jennersville, Pa., a yellow-leafed hydrangea named Lemon Daddy.

Consumers are now seeing the fruits of a breeding effort by Itsaul Plants, an Alpharetta, Ga., company whose recent and future offerings include a line of oddly colored coneflowers called Echinacea Big Sky. Crosses between the familiar purple coneflower and the yellow coneflower, the hybrids feature a magenta-red variety named After Midnight and a peach-colored variety named Summer Sky. Sunrise, which is yellow, was introduced two years ago, and Twilight, rose-colored, last year. An orange variety named Harvest Moon became available this year.

Nurseryman Robert Saul, one of four partners in the venture, said the challenge was to develop hybrids with the purple coneflower's desired traits, overlapping petals and broad leaves. More are in the works, and Saul has high hopes for a true red coneflower as well as a pink that bears more than a hundred blooms per plant, he said.

The company has also introduced a hit coreopsis hybrid named Jethro Tull noted for its fluted petals, early spring flowering and surfeit of blooms. Saul is also excited about the introduction of a pendant Japanese maple named Ryusen. Different from the weeping threadleaf forms, it behaves more like a woody vine and can be trained to a given height and then allowed to weep. "It's great for espaliers or doing arches," said Saul, " it would form a curtain." It will be available to American consumers in limited quantities next year.

Itsaul Plants is part of Novalis, a consortium of growers and breeders that is also planning to introduce different versions of one of the most successful roses in history. Knock Out has become a major seller since it was introduced approximately five years ago. Its bloom is single-flowered and a strong cherry red that is hard to place in the garden, but it blooms incessantly and is virtually disease-free in humid climates. Now, other versions are making it to the garden centers, including Double Knock Out, and in the next year or two, Pink Double Knock Out.

Novalis is also marketing a series of bamboos , including two hardy bamboos named fargesia that grow in clumps rather than by running rhizomes, avoiding the common problem of bamboo stands invading areas where they're not wanted. The first, Fargesia dendudata , grows to 12 feet; the second, F. rufa , grows to eight feet, making them valuable as screening plants for urban gardens.

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