Plant Trials, New Plants, and Troubling Trends

Those of you that regularly read this blog know that I am NOT a fan of new plants so it may come as quite a surprise when you read what I have to say here–or maybe not!

If you recall, one of my New Year’s gardening resolutions was to try to incorporate some new things–and that meant new plants–into my garden this year. So far I am meeting with some mixed success. More in a moment.

If you read regularly, you know that I am a proponent of the “tried and true,” at least when it comes to perennials. Part of that has to do with my experience in retail gardening and angry customers. Part of that has to do with having a very difficult site in my own garden where only the hardiest plants will grow, so I want something that’s stood the test of time, not a plant that’s only been out a year so no one knows how it will over-winter in my finicky environment.

But I recently read a post in Greenhouse Grower magazine by Dr. Allan Armitage (you can find that post here if you’d like to see what I read) about the spring plant trials in California.

If you have ever been to one of my lectures on “Trade Secrets,” you know I talk a bit about these trials. It’s a bit like a beauty contest for the latest and greatest plants. The growers show all the new varieties to those in the trade, hoping to get them to buy them for the retail market.

Dr. Armitage made 3 points in his article but the shocking one to me is that we are only seeing a small portion of the new plants–if we are seeing any at all–come to market.

This can’t be a good thing. How will a plant ever become a “tried and true” if it first isn’t a new plant? People have a right to see these new plants, to buy them, try them, love them, and even more important, to buy them again the following year!

But one of my pet peeves is buying a plant one year, only to be completely unable to find it the following year. This has happened to me several times with several different types of plants including roses and most recently this year, echinaceas. 

I bought 6 of a certain variety of echinacea last year. One has died and I can’t find that particular variety of echinacea anywhere at all this year to save my life.  There are many other different varieties–I bought two different varieties for another garden I planted hoping that if I needed to replace any next year I could find one of those. But it’s quite frustrating.

There is a certain breeder who is dumping echinaceas on the market as fast as it can breed them–surely many of you have noticed this? There is no regard for whether any of these will be hardy or come back true with respect to color (I know many of you have had that happen in the past).

It’s almost as bad as what happens with heucheras. Heucheras or coral bells, come from  different strains, generally. These strains have very different backgrounds. Some are native to California, some to New Mexico and Arizona, some to the Appalachian Mountains. It is therefore very easy to see why some fail to thrive  in your particular garden–depending on your own conditions.

Unfortunately, when you go to the garden center, it is not clear from the tag what you are buying. After exhaustive research, I cannot determine what strain heuchera ‘Obsidian’ comes from. It does okay in my garden but not fabulous. I guess that means it is not from the Arizona strain at least!

Heuchera ‘Caramel’ does fantastically in my garden although by rights it should not–it was bred specifically for the hot, humid southern garden. But I think that means it can take my soggy wet clay as well.

But if heucheras are up and dying for you, it is not you. Just try different varieties. Or try tiarellas. They are native plants. They should be hardier for you!

So what is the balance between dumping new plants so fast that they are here one year and gone the next and never seeing the new plants? Darned if I know! But I would sure like to see it!



6 thoughts on “Plant Trials, New Plants, and Troubling Trends

  1. The Chatsworth Lady June 17, 2016 / 10:47 am

    When I was intially working up a list of potential plants for my son’s new border, I drew heavily on the plants that I’d chosen for the garden in my prior house which is only about 2 miles from his and so the weather and soil conditions were essentially identical. All of them were bought between 2004-2007. I couldn’t believe how many of them are no longer to be found! For instance I discovered that no local nurseries stock Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ anymore. Apparantly it’s been superceded by ‘Blue Shadow’ which is a nice plant BUT it doesn’t get as large as Mt. Airy (which it’s a sport of.) No idea whether Blue Shadow’s fall color is as nice as Mt. Airy’s either.

    On the other hand, I can’t believe how many plants are being touted as “new” even though I’ve had them in my gardens since the 1990s. I saw Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ as a “new ” plant in some catalog and had to laugh because I had it in my mid-1980s garden. (that said, I did import it from Hilliers at the time but still it shouldn’t have taken a quarter century to make it to American commerce)

  2. gardendaze June 17, 2016 / 11:06 am

    Yes, the PPA will often declare its “Plant of the Year” to be something that’s been in the trade for 10-15 years. I talk about that in my lectures all the time. One nice thing about that is at least you know (presumably) what you are getting and can rely upon the tag for height, width, etc. And you can reliably presume that it will not be invasive in any part of the country. But it does sometimes seem silly.

    But this idea that you can’t find a plant that you just bought last year–or even a few years ago–is getting to be a bit much! Plants do die, or again, as I say, have lifespans. One ought to be able to replace a plant that is a short-lived perennial with the same thing and not presume that something “new and improved” (or not!) has replaced it.

    There was a great article in my local paper this morning about how a noted rosarian has come to work with our rose garden and how he’s trying to find cuttings of the roses that are original to it to help re-establish what was in some of the beds. All of the rose gardens around the country have agreed to help if they have what he needs. It just pointed up the difference in some of these plants–like roses–that are treasured for their longevity (although he did talk about how everyone is growing Knockouts these days!). Ah well.


  3. suz June 17, 2016 / 12:38 pm

    i have noticed exactly what you say about plant varieties disappearing after a year or two with two plants in particular – astrantia and tricyrtis. i think, in the case of tricyrtis at least, that sometimes they are sold as hardy in a particular zone and they are really not. or the trials weren’t over a variety of winters. –suz in ohio

    • gardendaze June 17, 2016 / 1:39 pm

      I think you are exactly right. It happens here with gaura and the above mentioned echinacea and we have had some problems with certain types of coreopsis as well. They are sold as hardy and the next thing you know, they’re gone.

      Thanks for bringing that point up, and for reading and commenting.


      • suz June 18, 2016 / 11:23 am

        bingo – you named two others i’ve had trouble with, too. i tried gaura only one year. i’ve been more indulgent with/babied along the iffy pink/rose coreopsis varieties that i’ve liked, and that has worked so far. –suz

  4. gardendaze June 18, 2016 / 11:58 am

    Too funny! I am glad that I am not the only one having issues with those (although I seriously doubted that I was!) When that red coreopsis came along and they swore it was hardy–heck, it was bred 20 miles from me–I thought, “hmm, am I going to fall for this?” I decided that I had to try it in the name of research for my lectures. But nothing gets babied here, so you know how that worked out.

    Thanks so much for sharing.


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