From the Supply Side

ASCFG members and other readers of The Cut Flower Quarterly tell us that they look forward every year to the New Varieties section. If you’re new to us, you may not realize that this feature used to be presented in the Winter issue; the heavy demand for cut flower seeds, plants, bulbs, and plugs necessitated its scheduling to be move to Fall.

On the editorial side, it’s fun for us to receive these beautiful photos and sometimes lyrical description; as growers and sellers of this plant material, it’s essential that you know which breeders and suppliers are offering the varieties you’re looking for. Even better, some that you weren’t looking for, but now may find intriguing.

We wondered, though, about the process of introducing these cultivars to the industry, so we asked a few of our partners to share their insights. We were happy to hear from Stacey Hirvela, Spring Meadow Nursery; Mary Vaananen, Jelitto Perennial Seeds; Ko Klaver, Zabo Bulb and Botanical Trading Company; Dave Dowling, Ball Colorlink; Marilyn Barlow, Select Seeds; and Bailey Hale, Farmer Bailey. Here’s what they told us.

How do breeders decide when it’s necessary to provide a new cultivar of a popular cut flower?

Stacey: While there is definitely a lot of breeding that takes place especially for the cut flower market among some of the most popular genera—roses, lisianthus, dianthus, etc.—our primary breeding goal is landscape performance. Many of our varieties also happen to be suitable for cuts, either because they are a new version of an established genus or they bring some sort of novel use/color/form to the market. We love plants that have multiple uses, and the great thing about being suitable for cutting is that appeals to a huge swath of homeowners as well as to professional cut flower growers. At the end of the day, the primary goal of landscape performance is beneficial to all segments of the market, though.

Mary: Sometimes new forms of a variety appear like magic in our seed production fields. If it piques the interest enough it will be channelled into the breeding process. Traits like compact form, foliage color, vigor, rebloom, etc. are all desirable.

Ko: Breeders decide when a new variety is to be added to the cut flower market for several reasons: 1. The selection is a game-changer compared to current product in the market (e.g. Roselily) or provides significant yield count or disease resistance. 2. The selection is an improvement over what currently is in the market with more, or larger flowers, longer stems, etc. 3. Sometime breeders want to improve and gain market share of a successful group, such as hydrangea; this is how markets are flooded. 4. Limited commercial trialing will provide much insight if we want to continue with a specific genetic. Trials in all different locations.

Bailey: Cut flower breeders tend to be experts of their crop, not necessarily experts on floral trends and needs. They understand the capability of their crop of choice and try to maximize its usefulness and visual appeal by combining the best traits of two or more related plants. In Holland, and presumably other countries, breeders work closely with growers and designers to trial new varieties and receive feedback. I don’t think they identify a hole in the market before starting a breeding project, they try to find a market for the crop they are working with.

How long (on average) does it take from that to the decision to seed, plants, or bulbs being available to growers?

Stacey: I can speak only to woodies, but for us, it’s an 8-12 year process. Herbaceous plants would generally be shorter.

Mary: It could be a few years or 20. For instance, our breeding of consistent strains of separate colors of single-flowering Alcea rosea (like the Chater’s Double series) took 20 years. The impetus was a good customer wistfully wishing for the very same. (Maybe answering your first question, too.)

Dave: Three to five years.

Marilyn: We select out of a population of a species, and it takes about 3 years to build up enough supply of a new variety while removing off-types during this time. No hybrid seed is produced by us, and often our selections are composed of a slightly variable mix of hues of pink, for example, rather than one shade of pink, which would involve more time to refine, and which, frankly, are less interesting in the garden.

Ko: A minimum 3-5 years to get annuals and perennials into the market. We need to build nucleus stock, or F1 seeds, or get vegetative tissue culture production going in a lab. Then we need to build numbers. Lilies and tulips can go as long as 6-10 years before significant stock is built up to a proper level of bulbs in the marketplace.

Bailey: This depends entirely on the crop and if it is seed grown or vegetatively produced. 

Annuals complete their life cycle in one year, so seed breeders can move quite quickly. It may take 5 or 10 generations to meet a certain goal and then another year or two to produce enough seed to meet demand. Initial work is usually done in highly-controlled greenhouses, while field seed scale production often happens outside in isolated fields. Working in both hemispheres can help, so a harvest can occur every 6 months or so. 

Vegetatively-produced plants can move quickly as well. Once the breeder identifies one exceptional plant, propagation can start almost immediately. This can be accomplished by cuttings, through tissue culture, or in some cases division. It can take another year or two to bring these products to market, but they tend to be faster to produce than seed strains as the breeder must produce only one amazing plant, and then increase its numbers, compared to seed breeders who must to create a strain that will produce a uniform crop time and time again. 

Some plants are just plain slow. It takes 5 to 7 years to flower a peony seedling, and then it can take many decades to produce enough divisions to meet commercial demand. This explains the high cost of newer peony varieties. Many of the standards we grow today are more than 100 years old. 

About how many new introductions of a given year go on to be successes, compared to the total number released that year?

Stacey: A great question! It really depends; sometimes an introduction will be made and its prevalence in the market will coincide with some new trend/zeitgeist and it will take off. I’d say our success rate is probably around 75%, though it’s difficult to measure because of the much longer market life cycle of woodies; they take longer to grow, hence longer to get on the market.

Mary: There are usually one or two that catch the right eyes and go on to be hits.

Dave: Only a handful of all the potential new plants produced each year. I’ve heard for every plant introduced to the market, there can be 1,000 that didn’t make the cut.

Marilyn: We offer no more than two new selections by us in a year, all are prefaced by “Select” such as our cornflower ‘Select Ultra Violet’ and our new tobaccos ’Select Night Flight’ and ‘Select Misty Dawn’.

Ko: The average selection seedling and then going to commercial production succese is either 1% or 2% of the overall seedling selections, hence the breeder royalty process for NEW genetics. This is done to provide independent breeders with a percentage of income guaranteed of the plants produced and sold. Some breeders want a royalty of every stem being sold, but that is a tedious piece of administration.

Bailey: Tough to say. Maybe only 10-20% of new introductions gain real traction in the American market. Much of what I have introduced has gained traction, as I am in the business of finding new and interesting material. I pass over thousands of varieties that I don’t feel are a good fit for small- to medium-scale American growers in favor of the handful that look promising. Of course, we are a fraction of the global market. Globally, most of the greatest hits (by volume) are things like roses, mums, alstroemeria, and gypsophila. These may not find a home in American flower fields but internationally are very important. 

What is your favorite part of this process?

Stacey: I love the story-telling aspect of it. Each of our plants has a unique back story about how and why it was developed, what it does, what it offers. I love using photos, video, and writing to tell that story to prospective buyers and get them as excited for our plants as I am.
Mary: As I am not a breeder I can only guess. For me the imagining of something new—never before growing in a garden on earth—would be the favorite part. The dreaming stage.

Dave: As a sales rep, seeing new varieties become a success. 

Ko: The selection process: seeing that specific, chosen young plant or series making it all the way to the TOP, and knowing that I had a little piece in bringing that to fruition, like for the Roselily.

Bailey: As a hunter of new varieties I love travelling to see new varieties in Europe and Japan. When I was in Japan in 2019 I found a few varieties that were not targeted for the American market, but were meant to be for Japan only. In fact, these were the varieties I found to have the most potential with ASCFG members. The seed suppliers listened and have started to offer a number of these varieties to the U.S. market. I also love trials. Of course, being the first in the country to grow a certain crop is exciting, but more often than not they don’t work out as planned. But when they do and I know they’ll be popular, I do get pretty excited. 

How important is input from the cut flower growers who are buying this material from you, and what’s the best way for growers to share their experiences with you?

Stacey: It is very important to us, and we would welcome any feedback, any time. Overall, the nursery industry makes a lot of assumptions about what others—from retailers, to consumers, to cut flower growers—want, so it’s helpful to have those assumptions questioned. For us here at Spring Meadow, they would be welcome to contact me ([email protected]) or if they are a customer, their account manager works as well.

Ko: Commercial trials feedback, meaning that when I set up trials with ASCFG growers, I want detailed performance reports. This will tell me whether I should ramp it up in full production, or be cautious, or if I should drop the selection completely. I do track social media pages a lot; I don’t comment often, but do scan most all the posts in ASCFG private group.

Marilyn: It is interesting to hear which flower varieties do well in the garden from the cut flower grower’s perspective.

Bailey: Numbers talk. We can look at sales histories to see what is increasing or decreasing in popularity. When we introduce brand new varieties, I always ask for direct feedback. 

Judy Laushman

ASCFG Executive Director

Contact her at [email protected]