In the Garden:
Middle South
August, 2007
Regional Report

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New introductions are tested at the AAS Trial Gardens at Park Seed in Greenwood, South Carolina, and at other trial gardens across the country.

New and Improved Plants

If it seems like there's a new and improved variety of coneflower or petunia every year, you're not imagining it. Plant breeders are continuously developing new plants and improving upon existing varieties. Although a truly blue rose or daylily hasn't hit the market, you can bet that breeders are working on it.

Have you ever wondered how these new varieties find their way into stores? It's a long process, taking years or even decades from the discovery or development of a new type of plant to its introduction into the marketplace. Some new varieties are the result of carefully calculated cross-breeding to achieve the desired traits; others are more or less "happy accidents." The new orange, yellow, and red-purple coneflowers are a little bit of both.

The Big Sky Echinacea Series
Everyone loves echinaceas, otherwise known as purple coneflowers (although the word purple has become obsolete). They're hardy and drought-tolerant, and they thrive in a broad range of climates. One drawback to the common coneflower was that growers in southern states found it difficult to keep container plants healthy through the winter. In the early 1990s plant breeder Richard Saul sought a solution by crossing E. purpurea (purple coneflower) with Echinacea paradoxa, a yellow-flowered species better adapted to the South. The result was a yellow-flowered echinacea with the desirable traits of E. purpurea. Intrigued, Saul continued crossing, selecting, and recrossing, which eventually led to the alluring colors and scents of the Big Sky series. A decade later, after years of testing and mass propagation, the plants are widely available in stores. [Source: PlantSpotters.com]

Who Decides What Plants Make It?
Last week I visited the All-America Selection Trial Gardens at Park Seed, in Greenwood, South Carolina. As in all AAS Trial Gardens, new introductions are planted alongside the most similar plants on the market to see how they measure up. Pains are taken to mimic conditions in the home garden; the plants aren't coddled. This season, test plants include new varieties of rudbeckia, small-flowered petunia, and laurentia.

The AAS trials are replicated in dozens of sites across the country, and varieties are rated by volunteer (read "unpaid") evaluators to ensure unbiased results. They're charged with answering the question, "Are the introductions really 'new and improved?'" AAS announces their newest award winners in June for the following year. They recently announced these three winners for 2008:

--Bedding plant award winner: Osteospermum 'Asti White'
--Cool-season bedding plant award winner: Viola 'Skippy XL Plum-Gold'
--Vegetable award winner. 'Hansel' miniature eggplant

The AAS Trials are just one example of the many systematic plant-testing programs that are going on worldwide, programs that attempt to bring the best of the best from the test gardens right into our backyards. Learn more about AAS at http://www.all-americaselections.org

Regional Award-Winners
Southern gardeners would do well to look for plants boasting the Athens Select brand. These plants have been chosen by plant guru Dr. Allan Armitage as suitable for the hot, humid conditions of the South. All plants are tested at the University of Georgia Trial Gardens. Past winners include some of my favorite plants, such as Strobilanthes 'Persian Shield', Alternanthera 'Red Threads', and Verbena 'Homestead Purple'. Learn more about Athens Select at http://www.athensselect.org.

I bought several of the Big Sky echinaceas this spring, and we'll see how well they do in my gardens. I hope they live up to the gorgeous photos and offer the promised pleasing scents. And I'll be keeping a close eye out for the next round of colors. Who knows, maybe we'll end up with a "blue" purple coneflower!


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