Are You Too Concerned About The Number Of New Varieties That Don’t Perform Well?

scaevola.jpg (52863 bytes)

“Scačvola as it looked on my upper deck, and as shown on the cover of my book Gardening Off The Ground, in 1994. Author photo.”

It’s now eight years since I tried six plants of a “new annual flower from Australia” that a few garden centres had that year. It was then called Australian fan flower, or scaveola, which was ostensibly its botanical name. Over the next two years we learned a lot about this plant. First, although many still call it scavEola, I used the proper name of the plant as early as the season of 1994. My good friend Graham Ross, who writes and broadcasts (both TV and radio) on gardening in Sydney and throughout Australia, soon corrected me when I pronounced it scavEola in a live broadcast with him on my Toronto radio show. It’s properly pronounced Scačvola, “the way it’s spelled” said he, and he added that it was a native of Western Australia. In fact he expressed surprise that I had not seen it growing there when I visited the Perth area in 1985. The likely reason for that is that I was so overtaken by the beauty of the various Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthus) plants that were new to me, I missed many other “new” items--at least new to we North Americans.

The questions are: did you grow Scačvola back when it was new, are you still growing it, and, do you think your Scačvola plants perform and flower as well now as they did at the beginning, years ago?

Several of the Scačvola cultivars available last spring did not do nearly as well last summer. Had the plants I got in the first year performed only as well as those last year, I would have deemed the ‘new” Australian fan flower a poor choice for us.

What is wrong? 

The problem is a matter of the great rush by plant introducers to get new, patented cultivars to the market. The marketing push is so great that there is literally no time for sufficient across-the-country (or across-the-continent) trialing and testing. For example, in the May issue of Plant & Garden my comrade Allan Armitage writes about new annuals and how they have done at his test grounds at the University of Georgia. And, as I read the brochure of one of the prime introducers of “new colour” as the annual business is called in the trade, I see several of the new introductions’ notes quote that university’s “Performance Trials”. That is one of the problems. Down there they may think they can deduce how a certain plant will react to what they know as our colder climate, but their deductions obviously aren’t too accurate.

What is needed is good, reliable trialing of many of these newer items--all the cultivars and strains of each--at a number of locations across Canada. Basically that system is in place with the All-America Selections organization (and has been for nearly 70 years!) but it is solely for seed-produced new cultivars of flowers and vegetables. Many (most) of these new annuals that are coming down the pike currently can only be reproduced vegetatively. The gardening public deserves better than putting out a lot of money for what is hyped to be a new and exciting cultivar, and then having disappointing results. 

That has happened recently not only with some of the newer Scačvola as mentioned, but also with Bidens that exhibited long rambling growth (a problem known technically as long internodes--meaning long lengths of stem between the leaf and flower-producing nodes), and Nemesia denticulata and N. fruticans cultivars which one year were loaded with virus and consequently performed poorly if not at all. In the case of Bidens, some growers assure me the cultivar ‘Goldie’ is more compact.

On the separate subject of variations within any one cultivar of an annual, back in the 1970s, I once visited a major U.S. seed company who decided to trial the annual Salvia, specifically a couple of the most popular cultivars at the time. I took pictures of the test rows of Salvia ‘Blaze of Fire’. There were about 40 different samples under test, and the results by mid August showed at least ten completely different plants and flowering results. In other words, even within one seed-produced cultivar (theoretically less likely to happen with vegetatively-produced plants) there were countless variations--some good, some bad. Obviously more of this type of testing should be happening now.

But most importantly, we need a network of testing/trialing facilities for the many new plants and cultivars of older ones that are hitting the market. And we need that now!

Art C. Drysdale, Horticulturist.