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Our ‘perennial’ discussion on new plant treasures

October 22, 2014  By Gary Jones

As I write this, it’s that time of year again. The days are shortening rapidly and the fall equinox has long since passed. Mornings bring with them a chill that makes one snap awake as soon you hit the outside air. And trees bring both a simultaneous awe at their incredible fine autumn clothing of the richest of colours and a tinge of sadness that the heady days of summer are nearly over and that cold, darker days are just around the corner.

This means only one thing to the gardener: the annual frantic search for those “must have” new plants that they will be grabbing hold of and planting at the start of the next growing season in spring.

I took a look at the plants of last fall/spring to see what was new then. The list was endless but highlights included:

  • Sambucus niger ‘Black Tower.’
  • Physocarpus ‘Lemon Candy.’
  • Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ series.
  • Heuchera ‘Marmalade.’
  • Hollyhock ‘Blacknight.’
  • New varieties of Calanthe (hardy orchid).

The list goes on, and I began to wonder what will be on this year’s lists.

And why?

Hardiness, depending on where one lives. Drought resistance or tolerance. Pest and disease resistance. Habit and size.

These are plant characteristics that have driven breeding for eons. But more recently the “average” gardener has become significantly more “picky” (some might say “discerning”) and looks for new or unusual foliage shape and/or texture, and of course, colour choices that make their friends go “wow!”

How do gardeners find out about the “Top 10 Best New Picks?”

Well, there are the usual suspects for such information: trade catalogues (which start falling on the hall mat any time soon); shows (of the “home and garden” type); by following their favourite local garden writer in the newspaper (which may be “online” of course); visiting local garden centres; family or friends; local radio gardening programs; industry association promotional materials (e.g., Perennial Plant Association marketing campaigns); and, more recently, social media such as Pinterest, Twitter feeds and Facebook.

So I asked a colleague, Betty Cunnin, what she thought drove new introductions of perennials and gardeners’ planting selections in landscapes each year. She thought that “…landscape fashion is a lot like clothing – in other words, it has its share of leaders, followers, lurkers and subcultures. It is not the landscapers or even the designers who drive which plants are used in gardens. These preferences are largely developed by what is available and commonly seen around. Oh, there are those collectors who read all the magazines and look for the newest and the latest, but mostly it’s the commercial and retail nursery sector that dictate which plants are used or are available to the market.”1

That’s really not much of a surprise, since the general public and landscapers can only plant what they can buy, and they can only buy what the commercial and retail sector choose to grow.

“What I find interesting,” adds Cunnin, “is how are the imperatives of the commercial nursery growers and the landscapers aligned and where do they differ? Can we (as an industry) create sustainable landscapes if the newest plants being introduced are just more and more patented cultivars?”

As a landscaper and avid plant person, she is well placed to keep in touch with garden fashion and trends, and from the pull (demand) end sees that “the subculture is the food/integrated landscape, the ‘naturalists’ who want a more native, natural look.”

This trend has been obvious too from the push (supply) end. Nursery and perennial producers I’ve visited have often been diversifying into the food sector with new ranges of herbs and other city and patio gardener-ready edibles. Sometimes these are the fastest expanding areas of their business. So maybe the commercial growers and landscapers will be more aligned in future – it’s just that when we’re talking perennials, we’ll be deliberating over the finer points of new cultivars of rhubarb and asparagus instead of hollyhocks and calanthes.

1 Betty Cunnin, Kwantlen Polytechnic School of Horticulture Landscape program faculty, personal communication.

Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

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