I’m fascinated by new plant development; in researching articles for this column I met Bernadette Clark who runs the color trials conducted at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. She was kind enough to take me on a tour of the trials and explain the university’s role in bringing new plants to the marketplace.
Guided by its mission to introduce, display and promote plants that diversify our landscape, the JC Raulston Arboretum works with commercial growers to test between 500-700 plants each season.
Starting in January, Bernadette and her team receive the seeds that they will sow on a weekly basis from the end of January through March. In the middle of March they will pot up the cuttings companies send them and grow them out.
The seedlings are given three weeks to settle in; any that do not survive are replaced. After the third week, Bernadette and her helpers begin to collect data, checking on the vigor, the size, the shape, the uniformity, and the colors of the flowers. Their findings are reported back and the plant developers evaluate the results.
Plant developers market their plants nationally and they need them to thrive in locations across the country. Testing plants around the country is time consuming and expensive, but plant developers can’t risk the additional cost of growing, distributing, and marketing plants that won’t perform. Ultimately though they need to develop plants that people want.
While in Raleigh I stopped by Logan’s Trading Company, one of the older garden centers in town. I spoke with Sharon O’Neill, she’s the long-time nursery buyer who is responsible for purchasing the plants sold at Logan’s. I asked her what their customers want when selecting plants. She said, “I would say first and foremost people come in looking for color. They want flowers, they want color, they want things that are going to do well here in our area.”
As with anything else, the plant world has its fads; plant developers and nursery buyers like Sharon have to stay ahead of these trends and have the plants gardeners want. Ornamental peppers were fashionable in the 1970s, then went out of fashion, but now are coming back. Coleus is also riding the fashion wave and the trial beds at the JC Raulston Arboretum are brimming with colors that developers believe the market will want in coming seasons.
The plant trials at the JC Raulston Arboretum are open to the public. Next time you are in Raleigh you may want to take the time to visit and take a peek into the future. You may spot the plants that will inhabit your garden one day.
The JC Raulston Arboretum is located at 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh. For more information visit their website; jcra.ncsu.edu.
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 Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org