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Creating New Hydrangeas

Triangle Gardener podcast logoHow do you choose a new plant? Bryce Lane of NC State joins our podcast with ideas for sustainable selections and DeVonne Friesen of Van Belle Nursery explains what goes into creating an award-winning hydrangea.

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JENKINS

A walk through any garden center presents new delights which leaves me wanting more.  And while there are people across our state working hard to satisfy me it can take many years to produce the plants I desire.

I’m Lise Jenkins and this is the Triangle Gardener show. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.

Support from Garden Destinations made this story possible. Garden Destinations is a digital magazine showcasing the world’s finest public gardens. Whether you’re planning a trip or doing some armchair traveling Garden Destinations is a great stop on your journey. You can find it at GardenDestinations.com 

JENKINS

According to the NC Nursery & Landscape Association there are over 1,400 growers in our state producing a wide variety of plants. The USDA Census of Horticulture ranked North Carolina sixth in the country in horticulture production with more than $570 million in sales. Creating plants that eventually make it into my garden is a big business, so I decided to take a closer look. My first stop was the JC Raulston Arboretum whose mission is to promote plants that diversify our landscape.

LANE

My name is Bryce Lane and I am a retired university instructor from the department of Horticultural Science at NC State, although I’m back teaching part time.  I teach courses in home gardening, home landscaping, basic horticulture, plant ID, and have been teaching at State for over 35 years.

JENKINS

We’re talking today over in the JC Raulston Arboretum and when this arboretum was started JC Raulston was famous for saying there were 40 different plants on the market country wide.  That’s not the case now.  The garden centers are bursting with choices.  The industry keeps bringing new choices out. I have to ask, it seems at times as a gardener it seems a little overwhelming.  Is it a good thing that we keep getting new plants?  Do we need all these new plants? Is it a good thing?

LANE

I think it’s a great thing because with diversity comes strength. In the long run the more unique and interesting plants we have the more successful our gardens will be. That being said I think what’s happened, it would be quite remarkable to sit down and have a conversation with JC today.  Because when he started, like you said, 40 basic woody species were available in garden centers and today there are thousands and there’s a new one being introduced every five minutes. I say that more as an expression than anything else.

Here’s the caution, they’re coming so fast. So many that I’m not necessarily sure, this is not a statement of accusation as much as observation, that we don’t know enough about the sustainability of that plant over time. Is it going to be a time-tested plant?  The term ‘time-tested’ describes plants that have been around for a long time, they perform very well in a multitude of environments and locations. What I’ve noticed, personal observation, not a declaration but what I’ve noticed is a lot of new plants are being introduced, we put them in the landscape, they languish.  We try to move them, they languish some more.  They’re not as tolerant of a wide array of environmental (light, soil, temperature) environments. It doesn’t make them bad, it’s not false advertising.  I get a lot of calls where people say “how come it doesn’t look like it looks on the tag?” I say “perhaps you’ve got it in a location that is not ideal”.  So I wonder if for some new plants that ‘ideal’ location is really a very small area. Where time-tested plants have a wide, very tolerable area of success.

JENKINS

You’ve had a lot of experience helping people select plants. What goes into that choice? Why do I go into a garden center bursting with things and pick one plant over another?

LANE

Well, you know it’s kind of interesting having worked in a garden center as a youngster. When I say youngster, I mean teenager.  I actually had first-hand observation of the kinds of criteria people used when they selected plants.  Although we’d like to think they make sense usually it is, ‘is it in flower?’  That’s why spring time is such an incredible time from a physiological perspective to shop a garden center. Because most things being merchandised are either getting ready to flower, in flower, or have just having finished flowering. That drives a lot of sales.

So I think the industry is working really hard to educate the general public on the kinds of questions you need to ask when you are selecting plants.  So that they’ll 1) survive, 2) provide what it is that you need, and 3) that it will not require a lot of inputs.  There’s a lot of emphasis now on sustainability. The idea of reducing a lot of water, fertilizer, pesticides. All those things contribute to a successful gardening experience.  I think the industry is really kind of tuned into how to educate how to select plants.  Both from an educational perspective and also from a marketing perspective.

JENKINS

The marketing and education activities that Bryce is talking about only happen if you have developed a great plant to introduce to the market. Now, I’m hooked on hydrangeas and grow several different varieties in my garden. Last season I fell for a new variety, called ‘Lavalamp Flare’. This popular, award-winning plant is marketed by Bloomin’ Easy Plants. So I decided to call them up and find out what goes  into creating the perfect hydrangea. 

FRIESEN

I’m DeVonne Friesen. I work as the Vice President at Van Belle Nursery and I’m also the Brand Manager for Bloomin’ Easy Plants.

JENKINS

You might have caught his accent, DeVonne is Canadian. He travels across North America and Europe visiting breeders searching for those few plants to bring back to their development facilities in Canada.

JENKINS

So let’s talk about your hydrangeas, the ‘Lavalamp’ series. Tell me about how many different plants you looked at before you brought that selection to market. Are you considering 1,000 different plants before you get down to that one perfect plant?

FRIESEN

Each breeder has a different approach and plants can emerge in different ways. Sometimes someone will find a sport that they think is interesting —one little branch that somehow is acting differently, which is just a natural thing that happens with plants. They’ll make a cutting and they’ll find something special and that’s a bit more by chance. That’s one way we’ll find a plant from a breeder or grower somewhere in the world that has discovered something.

The other way is when more dedicated breeding that happens. With a dedicated breeding program the numbers can be quite large where the breeders will produce and do all kinds of crossings and plant out little seedlings of all these different combinations. They’ll plant out —it can be up to 15 – 20,000 little seedlings. They’ll watch those, they’ll start to cull out the ones that look a little diseased or maybe didn’t make it through the winter. They’ll whittle it down. They’ll plant out maybe 100 different potential seedlings. And maybe those 100 will grow for 2-3 years and watch how they flower. With hydrangeas, of course, the flower is a big part of it. The structure, the leaf health. From any given year they will then, out of those 100 they sometimes will choose none. Because none of the selections actually turned out. And sometimes they might select 2-3 that have a future. It’s a lot of work that goes through it.

JENKINS

I’m envisioning tens of thousands of plants that come down to that one perfect plant that shows up in my garden.

FRIESEN

That is exactly how it works.  So that there’s a lot of work that goes into it.  There’s so many factors —environmental factors and geography. A plant that performs really well in Holland for instance, comes here and it’s a good plant, but maybe doesn’t get the same color for whatever reason.  The intensity of the sunlight, the seasonal change, the nighttime temperatures, so many factors.

JENKINS

When you’re looking at your hydrangeas what are the top traits you’re looking for when you are making the go / no-go decision?

FRIESEN

One thing that we are always looking for is how compact is this hydrangea when its full grown.  The older varieties were often very beautiful but very large. A big trait that we are looking for is, is it compact in its natural form? That just means it’s much lower maintenance and it will stay well behaved in yards that are typically getting smaller and smaller.  Also when they’re more compact you can enjoy them in a container on your patio. That’s also a growing trend. That’s one of the top things we are looking when we begin. So it would be compactness and structure because often as well as with hydrangea paniculata the blooms can be so gorgeous but they can also be very heavy. We’re looking for compact and strong stems to keep those nice blooms nice and up and not dragging on the ground.

JENKINS

You mentioned some of the trends you see in the market. How do you forecast ten years into the future? What are you looking for for the plants you are working with right now? What kinds of trends are you working towards that you see coming in the future?

FRIESEN

One thing that we have faith in is that a well performing beautiful plant never goes out of style. You’re right, it’s a long process and it’s definitely possible that we see that some varieties go in and out of fashion. What we do know is that color has never really goes out of fashion. So that’s one thing we keep our eyes focused on.

The other longer term trends that we see unfolding not over months or a year or two but over a decade or more are to look for plants that have those attributes of beauty and appropriate size but also things like disease resistance.    We want to find plants that are naturally resistant to predators and other issues they may face. The other aspect that we see as a long-term reality is water usage. So we’re always looking for plants that can handle lower, that have lower water needs. We see that as not coming in and out of fashion. I think that’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

JENKINS

It’s sobering that DeVonne and his colleagues see a world of smaller, drier gardens and are working to develop plants that will fit into that future. Lately I’ve been sort of down about a couple of plants I lost over the winter, but then Bryce reminded me that gardening is experimenting.

LANE

If I get 80% success in my garden from any new plants I bring in, any given year, that’s a really good year. So that means I’m very okay 20% failure.

JENKINS

Oh you’re making me feel so much better.

LANE

I mean, gardening is a process.  For me it’s not just the end result. It’s the selection, it’s the trial, it’s the moving.  All those activities that are involved with trying to be successful. There have been years when I lose 40% of the new plants I bring into my garden.  I’ll be okay with that. That’s what I signed up for. People look at me funny when I say this, and I say it frequently especially publicly, they’re just plants. They die. That just spells opportunity for me as a gardener because it leaves a space for another one.

JENKINS

Bryce is right. Last winter didn’t kill some of my plants, it just made an empty space to try something new. I’ll have wait to see if the hydrangea DeVonne and his colleagues made proves itself to be a time-tested plant. But in the meantime, I’ll keep trying new plants.  Maybe we do need them after all.

I’m Lise Jenkins and this is the Triangle Gardener show. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.  You can also find this and other episodes of our podcast on our website TriangleGardener.com, iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.