From the Alabama to Your Yard: The Path to Plant Introductions
It’s the time of year to scour native plant sales and local nurseries for new additions to the garden. While the choices may seem endless, the plants available to purchase are the result of a long chain of events involving the many people who find, grow and test plants for the public.
Take, for example, Coreopsis tripteris. This plant blooms in late July with yellow flowers and can grow taller than 6 feet in the right conditions. Goldfinches and chickadees love it, and so do Mt. Cuba Center’s gardeners, who traveled to Jefferson County, Alabama to collect seed from a colony of wild-growing plants.
“There was nothing unusual about the plant in the wild,” said George Coombs, Mt. Cuba Center’s Research Horticulturist. “It was just Coreopsis tripteris, and we wanted it in the gardens, so we brought home seed. It wasn’t until we grew out the seed and saw the plant that we realized this was a lot better than the Coreopsis tripteris we were used to, and that we should put a name on it.”
Notably, these Coreopsis tripteris seedlings grew tall, but stayed sturdy instead of flopping over like many of its brethren, and had more flowers than other versions of the plant. To make sure this characteristic wasn’t just a fluke, Coombs grew several patches of the plant and included it in the plant trial of other coreopsis species to test it. After years of successes—like consistent flower production, sturdy stalks, and clean attractive foliage, all characteristics that make it a garden-worthy plant—Coombs felt confident that this is a plant gardeners would want. The name Mt. Cuba Center settled on, Gold Standard, reflects this.
“Once we feel confident about how a plant will perform, we’ll approach people in the industry who grow and propagate plants and try to persuade them to grow it for sale,” Coombs said. “At this point, it becomes introduced to the market.” This is why such plants are referred to as an “introduction”.
Getting from the Trial Garden to Your Garden
This spring, Coreopsis tripteris ‘Gold Standard’ is available at select nurseries. But to get from Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden to the garden center’s bench took another push—which is where North Creek Nursery’s New Products Manager, Brigitte Crawford, comes in.
Crawford is in charge of deciding which plants the nursery will grow. This is no small task—the nursery will grow hundreds and thousands of each plant that will eventually supply garden centers and landscape companies. Crawford gets samples and suggestions on what to grow from plantsmen to industrial plant breeders, and, of course, Mt. Cuba Center’s horticulturists.
“It’s actually challenging to figure out what plants to add and trial because you’re getting plants thrown at you from all directions,” Crawford said.
Crawford narrows down her choices to plants that are native and have ecological value. Once she determines which plants might make good additions to the catalogue, she plants them in North Creek Nursery’s own trial garden to observe the plant’s growth and resilience for three years, though sometimes it can take less or more time to find out if the plant is a good fit.
To help evaluate plants in trial at North Creek Nursery, Crawford uses what she calls the New Plant Principles: “We like our plants to be good garden performers in the mid-Atlantic region. We don’t like to choose plants that are overly aggressive. We like to choose plants that have a low material input once they’re established. We also need to know how to produce these plants, how to market these plants, and we need to know that there’s a customer base that will want it.”
After all that is figured out, the plants get added to the catalog and become available to wholesale buyers, which eventually make their way to garden centers for retail purchase.
Mt. Cuba Center’s plant introductions
Coreopsis tripteris ‘Gold Standard’ is just one of many Mt. Cuba Center plant introductions. Since 1988, Mt. Cuba Center’s native plant experts have introduced 17 native plant selections, including popular favorites like Purple Dome New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’), a fall-blooming purple aster named after the solid mound it forms, covered in purple flowers, and Golden Fleece autumn goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’), which grows as a more compact form of the wild species and blooms in late fall with spires of small yellow flowers.
“In general, we look for more ornamental versions of the wild species,” Coombs said. “The main goal of our introduction program is to get these plants out there and available to people so that they have more options, and more enticing options, to use in the garden.” With the overarching goal to increase appreciation for native plants, Mt. Cuba Center’s Plant Introduction Program selects and promotes plants that flourish in a garden setting, where good plant behavior is a must—like predictable size, clean-looking foliage, and attractive coloring.
Finding these plants
It can be frustrating to read the results of a plant trial, such as Mt. Cuba Center’s recent Monarda for the Mid-Atlantic Region report, and not find the top-performers at your local nursery.
“Once we go through an evaluation, not all of the evaluated plants are readily available to the consumer,” Coombs said. “When we write the report, though, we want to talk about the very best plants we saw, and in some cases those plants are ones people can’t get their hands on yet, which is pretty frustrating. It can take years for it to reach the market.” That’s because it takes time for the market to adapt to the change in demand.
To find Mt. Cuba Center’s plant introductions, or for the top-performers in a plant trial, place a request with a local garden center, or search for an online nursery, which, while sometimes more expensive, tend to offer newer, hard-to-find varieties of plants. Some garden centers even have their available plants listed online.
The average gardener can impact which plants come to market. By requesting plants from the local garden center, they add to the demand for garden-worthy native plants.
“Our sales and customer service team tells us a lot of information,” Crawford said. “They might say that we could really use a full-sun groundcover, or tell us what customers have been asking for.”
This article originally appeared in the News Journal on June 1, 2017.