Sunday 20 November 2011

New Plants: An American revolution

Tony Avent surveys a sumptuous new Colocasia in his trial ground at Plant Delights Nursery, North Carolina, September 2011.
 Opening my mailbox this morning I found a message from that indefatigable horticultural news-hound, Bobby Ward of Raleigh, North Carolina, alerting me to an article in today's Sunday Telegraphavailable online. It's by Jenny Andrews, and is entitled New Plants: An American revolution. I think it's rather an important article, really emphasising how many important new garden selections are coming from the powerhouse that is modern American commercial horticulture, and it's well worth reading.

The majority of American home gardens may still be very dull and uninteresting, but over the past few years I have come to find American horticulture extremely exciting. Part of this is, no doubt, seeing a range of plants that we can't grow easily or well thriving in a different climate, but the activities of the best gardeners, whether it is with innovative landscaping and planting combinations, or in the nursery, is invigorating and inspiring. I've been fortunate enough to meet and get to know some of those involved in this revolution, notably Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, where he is experimenting with a vast range of new material, both wild and highly bred, and is encouraging others to do the same. A visit there, such as I made in September, is mind-blowing.

Tom Ranney with his creation
×Gordlinia grandiflora, a hybrid between Franklinia alatamaha and Gordonia lasianthus.
Further west in North Carolina is another hotbed of activity - the North Carolina State University's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, near Asheville, where Dr Tom Ranney leads a team investigating new potential in a range of woody plant genera, in search of good garden plants. One of his team's notable successes was breeding the first pink-flowered Hydrangea arborescens, sold as Invincibelle Spirit, and a major breakthrough in this very important landscaping plant in North America. Now the race is on to develop further pink cultivars with better habit and richer colour: in September Tom showed me a whole field of seedlings under assessment, although all their flowers had been removed to prevent snooping eyes getting a preview at an open day for viewing other crops. As Jenny Andrews explains in her article, there is potentially considerable money in a successful cultivar finding widespread usage, so such precautions are sadly necessary.

Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Spirit, at NCSU Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Center.


  1. Thanks for this new perspective on what's happening in America--part of a long tradition going back to John Bartram. I sometimes think the Revolution continues, at least with widespread anti-British attitudes among American gardeners. This helps break down that "blood-brain barrier," in both directions.

  2. Interesting article: thanks for the link. I have mixed results with this wealth of new plants. For example, the amazing foliage colors of tissue-cultured hybrid Heucheras are irresistible, but few survive here for more than a few months, while the native species Heucheras are good for a decade or more.

    Another bothersome phenomenon is the disappearance of the local family-run plant nursery, which cannot possibly compete on price with a limited palette of mass-produced plants sold by big-box stores. Increasingly those big-box store plants are treated with growth inhibitors or are dwarf varieties only, simply so that they take up less shelf space.

    It seems as though the amazing new wealth of plants being developed is as the same time being sabotaged by the requirements of the "manufacturing" side of the business.

  3. Hey John, I so enjoyed meeting you at the JC Raulston Arboretum and hearing your talk. I wish I had a chance to share with you some of the area's gardens that are brighter than dull. Next time, I promise! Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence


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