What it Takes to Bring a Plant to Market
By Emily Goldman with Mike Bone:
Exciting new plants don’t magically appear on shelves at garden centers each spring. Bringing plants to gardeners depends on knowledgeable horticulturists, experienced propagators, and dedicated plant growers with decades of experience. Ross Shrigley, Director of Plant Select®, says it takes an average of six to eight years to get perennials from the field to garden center shelves, and 20 years or more to bring trees and shrubs to market through the program. North American natives are the fastest to get through evaluations, but they are usually the most challenging for production greenhouses to grow.
It is the job and passion of a horticulturist to dive in to understand what makes plants resilient and answer the call to preserve them, appreciate them, and help bring them into cultivation. To cultivate plants from wild places takes patience as all plants are puzzles to be solved. Decipher one plant riddle, and you are that much closer to bringing the beauty of the natural world home to a gardener. In these small ways, horticulturists unite the world through plants, and plant stories are preserved.
Denver Botanic Gardens is home to plants worldwide. But the mission of Plant Select®, a non-profit plant introduction collaboration between Denver Botanic Gardens, Colorado State University and horticulturists from around the world, is “to seek out and distribute the very best plants for landscapes and gardens from the intermountain region to the high plains and beyond.” It often starts with a story of lands far away, filled with mystery and wonder. Remote places that are distant yet familiar. Though sparsely populated, conditions resemble our North American steppe: freezing temperatures, searing wind, blazing heat, intermittent rain, and then the hail! That plants, animals, and humans can survive in such harsh conditions, and still blossom, flourish, and thrive seems almost inconceivable. These are places to find plants that will adapt to Colorado’s tough climate.
Above: Mike Bone relaxing with Xerophyta viscosa (pink flowering plant) and Euphorbia clavaroides (smaller cushion plant) in Royal Natal National Park, South Africa.
Mike Bone is a Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturist with the unique opportunity to travel to steppe regions worldwide to seek out plant treasures firsthand and bring a piece of the treasure home (with permission of course). It takes many flights, long rides on trains, hours in rough off-road vehicles – and intestinal fortitude for the strange! (Horse intestine soup anyone?) But he savors the journey: “I have long believed that the best plants grow only in places where people are the fewest.”
Plants with promise collected by horticulturists like Mike Bone may prove challenging to grow in a greenhouse setting despite how amazing they are in nature. The process includes information sharing among horticulturists and propagators. For Plant Select® much of the work takes shape in trial gardens.
Denver Botanic Gardens is not only a living library of plants from around the world, they host Plant Select® trial gardens where over 80 steppe region plants are currently under observation. This includes bi-monthly photographing, maintenance, and ongoing research. Woody plants go through Colorado State University’s five-year multi-site trial gardens scattered up and down the Front Range, plus one location on Colorado’s western slope. Having an ample supply of large container plants for four trial locations in one year can require three to five years of preparation and coordination. Imagine what it takes to have enough plant supply to stock countless garden centers across the state – or the nation – year after year.
It’s one thing to grow old favorites; it’s another to bring a native plant or a selection favorable to the greenhouse environment to market. Newer business models also make it more challenging. Many perennial growers won’t grow plants unless they have orders for them. Since there isn’t any sales history for new plants it’s difficult to estimate how many will sell if they are grown. Gardeners are enthusiastic about sharing their passion for plants and this is helpful since spreading the word can fuel demand.
Garden centers can only provide plants if they can source them from a grower and growers have much to consider and risks to evaluate. Suppose a plant takes a long time to grow or has unique requirements. In that case, it can impact the amount of available space to grow countless other profitable plants. Plants grow differently in every setting depending on greenhouse construction, location, orientation, grow mixtures, and even the irrigation water temperature. Growers also have to weigh how well received a plant will be by the public; will it show well in a container in May despite wanting to bloom in August? Consumers need to learn to see a plant’s potential despite its limited curb appeal in a container.
Plants not only have to be stunning, they also have to be unique and beneficial.
Native plants are all the rage – and rightfully so since they best support native pollinators and ecosystems – but mass production can be very tricky. And some things remain the same in an ever-changing world, like the time it takes for a plant to grow. Despite consumer demand, an oak tree takes its time; the plant propagation code for Indian Paintbrush may never be deciphered for mass greenhouse production despite how much we desire this wild beauty in our garden.
From roughing it in remote areas to the checkout lane at garden centers, a trained eye, timing, coordination, and patience are all requirements for bringing a plant to market. Rest assured, however, that countless horticulturists, plant propagators, and garden centers are working hard to bring you more of the plants you love. And also understand that plant conservation and cultivation go hand in hand, both in distant places and our own North American steppe.
Know what you’re planting. Read Plant Stories at Plantselect.org and visit public gardens like Denver Botanic Gardens at York Street and at Chatfield Farms to see plants and horticulturists hard at work. You might just spot next year’s Plant of the Year, which in reality has been in the making for years, just waiting for its debut.
Emily Goldman (emilygoldman.net) is a landscape designer in Fort Collins, assists the Director of Plant Select, and is an ambassador for the City of Fort Collins Xeriscape Incentive Program.