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WHAT’S IN A NAME

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

A few weeks ago I went to the garden center to buy some pansies to put in decorative pots by my front porch. In my experience pansies hold up even after the mums bite the dust, and they provide color just about as long as anyone has a right to expect color from a garden plant.

I arrived and found a bounteous assortment in a myriad of hues, including orange, which somehow looks less garish in fall than it does in May. The thing that stopped me in my tracks was that about twenty-five percent of the pansy display space was devoted to something new—"Icicle Pansies"™. These pansies, specially packaged and displayed under their own colorful promotional banner, were eye-catching . According to the copy on the banner and the plant tags, they are guaranteed to bloom in the fall, overwinter, and bloom the following spring. It sounded like a good deal, the plants were plump and healthy, and two seasons of bloom would more than justify the premium price.

This reminded me of similar experiences I have had recently in a number of different garden centers. Last spring as I shopped for perennials, I was drawn to a special display area that was reserved exclusively for Etera™ Perennials. This contained many different plant species, all potted in coconut fiber pots that were surrounded by special cardboard covers featuring the Etera logo. Making my way to the roses I saw a vast expanse of pink, two-gallon pots containing the popular Groundcover Roses™. The copy in the little brochure attached to the plants said that they were brought to me by a plant industry genius named Anthony Tesselaar. Mr. Tesselaar’s roses are low growing cultivars with red, pink, white or yellow blooms. The copy described them as being totally carefree, abundantly floriferous and so hardy that they could probably survive a nuclear winter.

When I turned my attention to annuals I saw many pots of Million Bells™ Calibracoa, a cascading plant available in a multitude of appealing colors. Calibracoa is a relative of the common petunia, and the Million Bells variety was developed by Suntory, a Japanese company. Since Suntory is better known for its Scotch and other distilled spirits than for flowering plants, I was intrigued. Imagine what will happen when Kraft Foods finds out that there is already a peony variety called ‘Cheddar Charm’.

This avalanche of trademarked plant varieties has occurred because gardening is big business, and big business attracts other big businesses. Fifty years ago, when people went out to buy plants, they were likely to go to a nursery where the plants were actually grown. Such places still exist, but with the proliferation of gardening as a hobby, the subsequent explosion in the number of outlets where plants can be obtained, and the high cost of real estate in suburban areas, the vast majority of garden centers rely on plants grown offsite. From this kind of centralized cultivation and distribution system, it is only a short step to the formation of big plant-producing companies. And from there it is only another short step to the marketing of trademarked plant varieties. Such marketing can sometimes be a help to gardeners, but it is more often a help to mega-plant producers’ bottom lines.

Most of the trademarked plants are marketed to be as user friendly as possible. Bright packaging draws the eye, and each specimen comes with a highly descriptive plant tag, or even, as in the case of Monrovia plants, a mini-booklet on the cultural requirements of the specific shrub or perennial. This makes it a lot easier for the novice gardener. Also, the plants selected for trademarking tend to be "no-fail" varieties like the "My Favorite Petunias", marketed by the Tesselaar firm in conjunction with Ball Horticultural Company, an American seed and plant concern. For those who want a plant that they can buy, plop in the ground and forget about, the marketers make it easy.

So what is the harm in something that is easy to grow, comes in a variety of appealing colors and claims to be black-thumb proof? For one thing, it puts the squeeze on smaller plant producers who simply do not have the capital to invest in costly and intensive marketing. Their plants may be every bit as good, but they don’t have the resources to get the attention. The big marketers also take up shelf space in garden centers that was formerly devoted to smaller producers’ products, tightening the economic squeeze.

The big marketers are also plant specialists and spend lots of money developing new plants with specific traits, but they also tend to focus on a few genera and species. There are lots of interesting garden plants out there that are not well adapted to every climate zone in the United States, or are relatively difficult to propagate, or have subtle rather than obvious virtues. Small producers keep such plants alive, literally, figuratively and commercially. If those producers are squeezed out of business by national or even global plant producers, those worthy plants will be a lot harder to come by.

When you go to the garden center, it pays to know what you are looking for and to think carefully about what you are buying. The alluring Icicle Pansies, for example, are almost indistinguishable from their less-hyped cousins. In my experience in this climate pansies purchased in the fall often overwinter and bloom again the next spring—with or without a guarantee. In a case like that, you might as well save a few dollars on your purchase, pocket the change and spend the savings on one of those trademarked coffee drinks at your local Starbucks.

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