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Creating a centre of attention

June 21, 2010  By Milhem Sawaya

The California Pack Trials name has been changed to the California
Spring Trials
but in reality, there are no “trials” as such. It is a
product showcase by the breeders, which is why I like calling it
exactly what it is: The California Showcase.

This display shows how retailers can colour coordinate their displays.


The California Pack Trials name has been changed to the California Spring Trials but in reality, there are no “trials” as such. It is a product showcase by the breeders, which is why I like calling it exactly what it is: The California Showcase.


The annual event, in my view, is running out of ideas to attract the same visitors each year. However, if you are visiting the trials for the first time, or every couple of years,  you will still learn something new.

During Showcase week, breeders utilize the most imaginative marketing and merchandising displays to show retailers how best to grab the attention of consumers, whether with unique combinations, POP signage or colour schemes. Adding a little pizzazz to retail displays (similar to what was displayed in California) means more sales, as customers see a variety of applications with plant material in and around their properties. The displays are truly inspiring.

Probably less than 15 per cent of visitors are growers.  The Showcase is geared to buyers,  especially to brokers  and chain store buyers. Perhaps this is why the “trials” aspect disappeared, or perhaps the growers could not find much new for them to learn from each year, other than new colours and new cultivars that have not yet been tested.


In many cases when a new cultivar is introduced, a chain will take that cultivar exclusively. In my experience, this process is the number one factor of shrinkage in profit for the grower and the chain because quite often:

a) It didn’t go through a garden performance trial.
b) No customer appeal study has been done.
c) The know-how to produce a top-quality product for a specific date has not been established.

Normally, these exclusive products cost more for the grower. The chain puts the product front and centre in their promotion material – the most expensive section – and the store has to place the product in the most prominent display area.

The breeder sold the product to the chain, which then spent a lot of money advertising a product the consumer – if not satisfied by the product’s performance – will no longer buy. The chain’s credibility is diminished in the eyes of the consumer. The grower is left with product that costs a great deal to produce, and now he or she must incur even more costs to dump it. But not to worry, it’s a green, recyclable product!

Increasing the consumption of horticultural products can only be done by helping the consumer be successful and satisfied with their purchase, not potentially setting them up to fail. The consumer can be deceived only once, and then we have lost him or her for a long time.

This is the reason I share these varieties with you. They are meant to be trialled at your own facility so you know how to grow them and monitor their garden performance, while tracking consumer appeal.

The California Showcase will be covered this month and next month so we can cover more varieties although, by no means, are all varieties covered. This is a sampling of some of the varieties that caught my eye. Among the ones that interest me are new introductions for 2011, older varieties that have been improved or changed but carry the same name, and others that have been around for many years but are showing new trends.

Trailing seed petunia are more popular than ever, possibly due to ease of production, less chance of imported diseases and, definitely, no insects.

‘Opera Supreme Raspberry Ice’ (1) is one colour in this series that branches nicely with a full centre.  It looks great on its own in hanging baskets, or when mixed with other varieties. The series, when combined with other cultivars, creates synergy in the whole container rather than dominating the display or disappearing from view. The Opera series comes in 10 colours and is known for its controlled-branching habit.

Every grower, at one time or another, has grown cannas from rhizomes. This could be an excellent process, but  often the rhizomes are dried up or full of viruses and diseases. The Tropical series of cannas are grown from seed, and for the last four to five years, have gained in popularity – especially since germination percentages have been improving. ‘Cannas Tropical Bronze Scarlet’ (2) is the new addition to the other six colours in this lineup. It features excellent garden performance in our field trials, and is great for bedding applications or as a centre for spring or fall mixed containers.

Seed geranium is an excellent garden performer compared to zonals. It is more rain tolerant and much more floriferous. With the new breeding of excellent bronze foliage and exotic colours, it should transform nice gardens into great gardens.

The Black Velvet series (3) has excellent rich chocolate foliage with a narrow contrasting green edge and comes in six flower colours. If Black Velvet is grown like a zonal geranium – i.e., given space and time without torturing it with growth regulators – you will have an awesome product.

‘Petunia Symphony Burgundy’ (4) is one colour of 20 in the multiflora Symphony series (5). The series has excellent post-rain recovery and compact growth habit, early flowering, and is very resistant to central-plant split. It is excellent for beds and containers.

Excellent seed coleus varieties are available that will compete with the cutting varieties. ‘Coleus Giant Expedition Multi-Coloured’ (6) is an excellent variety with large colourful leaves that can be mixed with other varieties in containers, or you can mix the different coleus colours in the same container with a centre plant that will synergize the mix. I have seen this in many garden centres and the consumer response is overwhelming. Coleus can be grown in the shade as well as full sun.

Sedums are not new to the horticultural industry, but the popularity of succulents is higher now than ever,  which is why we are seeing new cultivars offered for production.

‘Sedum Maximum Matrona’ (7), ‘Sedum Spectabile Thundercloud’ (8), and ‘Sedum Spectabile Autumn Delight’ (9) are only a very few samples of hundreds of sedums which are, in fact, only one part of the family of succulents. Sedums and other succulents, when grown in combinations, can be especially pretty. They have excellent garden performance; when it comes to maintenance, a basic weekly watering is usually enough. The “Champion Basket” in our annual container trials last year was 100 per cent succulent.

‘Begonia Encanto Orange’ (10) offers a different look that can add texture to containers.  It can be produced in large containers or for mass beds. Experiment with this new variety to see where it could fit profitably.

If you are looking for different flower colours, petunia is the genus for you. ‘Happy Mini Punch Banana’ (11) is an example of extremely colourful flowers that you don’t see in many other genera.  It is a mini multiflora petunia that will show very nicely on its own, and can  also be a very nice addition to the right combination.

‘Petunia Happy Lemon’ (12) is a multiflora that’s as yellow as other petunias, but the main difference is its excellent growing habit. ‘Happy Lemon’ is an excellent variety grown alone or in mixed containers where its habit of mixing with other cultivars – instead of crowding them out – gives an enhanced overall look.

‘Gazania Sunbathers’ (13) are different from the seed variety gazania because the flower is much fuller, takes the sun and heat better, and the flowers stay open in the dark. It has excellent garden performance and can  be grown in mixed containers.

‘Rudbeckia Tiger Eye’ (14) is proving to be an excellent plant in the garden,  as it blooms from the first day you plant it to well past the first frost. The best characteristic of ‘Tiger Eye’ is its long-lasting flower. New flowers are being formed even as old ones still look good, which means almost no deadheading is required. It is very floriferous.

Looking for a begonia that takes full sun and heat and is not a midget? Begonia Volumia (15) is the series that grows to a nice size and fills beds nicely with excellent performance. It is also good in 10 cm and 15 cm pots for a fast landscaping show.

‘Salvia Velocity Blue’ (16) is an excellent potted plant in containers of 10 centimetres, 15 centimetres, or much larger. The ratio of foliage to flowers is perfect for  landscapes that need that kind of balanced combination. Blue salvia is a gardener’s dream – low maintenance, excellent show, and hummingbirds love it! Velocity also can be incorporated into mixed containers.

Everybody loves lobelia but many consumers shy away from using it because it doesn’t handle the heat very well. Now, we have many varieties that can handle extreme heat. The Lobelia Techno series (17) is one that has been proven in our summer trials. Lobelia can be mixed with cool crops, hot crops or shown alone. Its excellent open growing habit makes it ideal to place with combinations where the lobelia will penetrate through the other cultivars to give an excellent combination.

‘Dipladenia Mandevilla Rio’ (18), like other Dipladenia Mandevillas, like heat and are in demand – especially when grown properly. Excellent cultivars are on the market and do very well the whole summer from early spring until late fall.

‘Geranium Calliope Ark Red’ (at left) and ‘Scarlet Fire’ (19) are getting more established in the market as leading geranium cultivars. The bright red colour on a massive body of foliage makes the Calliope excellent in a large container. Watch what size of mix containers you put it in – I suggest using a large size container. Only one plant per container is needed unless you plan to have the whole container be Calliope by mid-July.

The Heuchera Kira series (20) has different coloured foliage. All series can be started from unrooted cuttings if the price of tissue culture varieties scares you. This is an excellent budget series that takes a long time to root, or  it can be  purchased as a rooted cutting. Plant the different heuchera in the same container with a centre variety that will enhance the whole mix. Then, at the end of the summer, it can be planted in flowerbeds.

Bacopa comes in more than just white. ‘Scopia Gulliver’ (21) comes in blue, lilac and silver. ‘Bacopa Scopia Double’ (22) comes in pink pearl, white and blue with semi-double flowers without losing its flower power. Grow with other bacopa varieties, or mix them with other cultivars!

Looking for a lobelia that really mixes well? Try ‘Lobelia Anabel Blue Bell’ (23). It has a habit that brings out the best in other plants to create a perfect combination.

Many new petunia varieties are introduced and they are not like the same old varieties. Bicolour flowers such as ‘Cascadias Violet Skirt’ (24), the unique pink colour of ‘Cascadias Marshmallow Pink’ (25), another different pink shade like ‘Pink Ray’ (26), the ‘Littletunia Dark-Eyed Lady’ (27), and the ‘Novelia Martha Washington’ (28), are double flowers that stand out among the many varieties around it.

There are many petunia varieties with many different colours and habits. A well-grown petunia offers excellent value for the grower and the consumer, which is why we asked Dr. Will Healy of Ball Horticulture to share with us the culture for growing a top petunia crop at last month’s Greenhouse Canada Grower Day.

Continually increasing in sales, calibrachoa is still getting enriched by new cultivars and cultivar improvements. ‘Calibrachoa Aloha Canary Yellow’ (29) is the new yellow being introduced to replace the old one.

Breeders are increasing the number of mounding petunia varieties that feature early flowering even in short days and low light. Good examples are ‘Surprise Bubble Gum’ (30) and ‘Surprise Purple Ice’ (31). Most of the mounding petunias are not recommended for mixed containers because they do not gel with other cultivars.

Bidens is an integral genus of many mixed containers. ‘Bidens Bidy Gonzales Big’ (32) has large flowers with a branching habit that fits very well with other cultivars in mixed containers.  The yellow flowers are a definite enhancement.

‘Geranium Survivor Salmon’ (33) is the new addition to the series. This vigorous growing series makes excellent gallons and larger containers, as well as large hanging baskets. The Survivor series has done very well in greenhouse production and our garden trials, which this year will be held Wednesday, Aug. 11 at our gardens near Simcoe, Ontario. See website information at the end of the article.

‘Bacopa Bahia Blanca’ (34) is an excellent and floriferous cultivar.  The older flowers last a long time, which gives hanging baskets a totally white cascading blanket of flowers.

Sanvitalia is one of the best garden performers every year in our trials. ‘Sanvitalia Sanvi Compact’ (35) and ‘Sanvitalia Sanvi Trailing’ (36) are two varieties with excellent habit for containers and flower beds.

‘Euphorbia Stardust White Sparkle’ (37) has larger flowers that last somewhat longer on the plant,  giving it more white show – even from a distance. It is an excellent mix with other cultivars to provide successful combinations.

Next issue, we will continue sharing with you more of the California Showcase 2010 varieties. ■

Milhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome, please e-mail, or visit or .

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