The ornamental plant market is driven by both consumer demands and plant breeding innovations. New or improved varieties are replacing those offered decades ago, and some of the older varieties become heirlooms. Breeding programs at private companies, by independent breeders and at U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities and universities all contribute to the ever-expending color palette of the ornamental plant market. Private breeding programs rely on patenting and licensing to stay sustainable, while federal breeding programs are supported by tax dollars. New releases from USDA facilities are free for the industry and consumers to benefit from. University breeding programs have changed over the years, and many are becoming self-sustaining through plant patents.
Plant breeders in the world of ornamental horticulture are like engineers. They assemble all the species and hybrids of a genus that have positive characteristics — including good growth habits such as more basal branching, more and better blooms, certain foliage color, disease resistance, season extenders with earlier or later flowering and good vigor — and craft or hybridize them into new cultivars. While federal and university programs may look for that big breakthrough, independent breeders are often working out of their love for a plant, and objectives will eventually come along later. Breeding ornamental plants requires a commitment of time. Depending on the genera and method of propagation, the time from hybridizing to introducing a new cultivar takes on average four to six years for annuals or herbaceous perennials and much longer for woody species. For example, Robert “Buddy” Lee, of Independence, Louisiana, an independent breeder and director of plant innovations at Plant Development Service Inc., started working with azaleas in the late 1970s and released the first three varieties of Encore azaleas in 1998 (Photo 1).
After the breeders have developed something new, there is still a long time before a plant can be given a seal of approval. Regional or national trials, such as the All American Selection trials, with nursery growers and university trial gardens, such as the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station in Hammond and the Botanic Gardens at Burden in Baton Rouge, can take another three to five years.
Debuting new cultivars to the gardening public through branding has become a major marketing effort. Patented plants under these brands are marketed through massive advertising in gardening magazines, TV shows, industry trade magazines and trade shows. Their eye-catching point-of-purchase displays help loyal customers locate them quickly in stores (Photo 2).
Along with multiseasonal bloom, sterility is another highly sought-after breeding objective. The purpose is to have a beautiful garden plant that will not set seeds and present no problem with invasiveness. One successful example is Sunshine ligustrum. This is a sterile vegetative mutant of a variegated Chinese privet. It has a dramatic golden yellow leaf color and can grow in almost any soils (Photo 3).
Another trend in breeding programs is easy-care plants that use fewer resources and are showy and rewarding. Native plants that thrive in local conditions seem to fit these demands perfectly. Great effort has been placed in selecting and developing cultivated versions of the native species that are faster and easier to grow and prettier in the gardens.
Unlike the proliferation of reblooming shrubs and flowering plants that were born in the hands of breeders and instantly met consumer needs, market demand for plants such as pollinator attractors and edibles was driven by consumers and has been stable for the past decade or so. No specific breeding program exists for pollinator-friendly plants, but incredible consumer demand has created a great opportunity for marketing plants with these attributes. For instance, new releases such as buddleias, celosia, gailardias, monarda, milkweed and salvia are providing many of these traits. Fewer edibles with ornamental traits are being released compared with flowering plants, but they are marketed just as heavily. For example, a new edible collection of Southern Living Plants features ornamental blueberries and blackberries, thus making it easy for consumers to try something new in their edible landscaping.
One thing gardening consumers may not realize is the large number of plants that are good performers but are waiting for the right timing to get on the market. In addition, many pass-along and heirloom plants can be rediscovered, improved and reintroduced. Because of the dedication of ornamental breeders, big or small, consumers can always be assured of the best plants the ornamental industry can offer.
Yan Chen is a professor at the Hammond Research Station, Hammond, Louisiana.This article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Photo 1. Autumn Bonfire is the latest release of the popular multibloom Encore azalea series introduced by Buddy Lee, of Independence, Louisiana. Photo by Allen Owings
Photo 2. Southern Living Plant Collections, a major branding program, is on display at a garden center in Covington, Louisiana. Photo by Yan Chen
Photo 3. Sunshine ligustrum in production at Bracy’s Nursery, Amite, Louisiana. This sterile privet has a bright golden leaf color and many uses in the garden. Photo by Allen Owings