Producing new plants

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners -
‘Lavalamp Flare’ hydrangea took nearly 15 years to develop. - Lise Jenkins

The colorful display of blooms and luscious scents that will fill my garden this season are not for my benefit; it’s part of plants’ reproductive cycle. But I am filled with desire. I see, I smell, I want. A walk through the garden centers present new delights which leaves me craving more.

According to the NC Nursery & Landscape Association there are over 1,400 growers in our state producing a wide variety of plants. The USDA Census of Horticulture ranked North Carolina sixth in the country in horticulture production with more than $570 million in sales. Creating plants that eventually make it into my garden is a big business, so I decided to take a closer look.


In simplest terms, new plants are either discovered in the field or arise from breeding efforts. Plant hunters travel widely seeking out better-adapted plants. The traits these plants have developed to succeed in their location may enable them to thrive in our gardens. Alternatively, plant breeders can both set out to develop a new plant that has desirable traits or they may discover novel traits that emerge in one of the thousands of plants they grow as part of their breeding programs.


One plant expressing a desirable trait is not enough to guarantee success in the marketplace. That plant has to be grown in huge numbers to ensure it satisfies a number of criteria; depending on the plant’s lifecycle this process can take several years. This cycle is repeated several times and entire breeding projects are abandoned when plants do not meet expectations.

Traits identified during testing impact the final price of a plant. Because easy-to-propagate and quick-to-grow plants require fewer resources, they often cost the consumer less. How much buyers are willing pay can also disqualify otherwise promising plants if they are too costly to produce.


Years of testing hopefully yield a plant that possess traits buyers want. It then moves to growers who are licensed to grow and distribute the new plant. Responsible for producing large numbers of healthy plants, these growers will deliver them to wholesale and retail markets.


The final step moves the new plant to market. Wholesale markets sell to landscapers who buy plants to install in commercial or residential properties. Retail markets have the task of enticing gardeners and homeowners to buy their new offerings.

Plant developers endure challenges familiar to all gardeners; ill-timed weather events, pest damage, irrigation problems; we know this list is long. The consequences for plant developers both in terms of time and financial losses are much greater than the disappointments gardeners may face.

So why do we crave all these new plants anyway? Simply because we want them. Some new plant that catches my eye started out when a plant explorer or breeder first saw it and thought, “Hmm, maybe someone would like that.” It’s all about desire.

Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn are contributing columnists. Absent from their gardens, they enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of innovation and horticulture. More on Twitter @AbsenteGardener or email:

Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners

‘Lavalamp Flare’ hydrangea took nearly 15 years to develop.‘Lavalamp Flare’ hydrangea took nearly 15 years to develop. Lise Jenkins

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn