Variations on a Theme: New Plant Varieties Spark the Spring Season

Breeders improve flower stocks and colors, plus vegetable taste and hardiness

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Harm Saville, a longtime breeder of miniature roses, remembers well a moment in 1989 that sent his heart racing just a little bit faster.

The owner of Nor-East Miniature Roses in Rowley, Mass., was inspecting several hundred promising seedlings when one newly flowering specimen caught his eye. It had many of the petite qualities he was looking for, but then, as he lifted it to his nose, he realized it had something rare in miniature roses: a strong fragrance.

Now, seven years later, a descendant of that rose graces the front cover of his 1996 catalog. He calls it Scentsational, a pink-edged, mauve-flowered specimen that in a bouquet will fill a room with fragrance.

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Also in the late '80s, breeders at W. Atlee Burpee & Co. noticed something attractive in their cucumber breeding program: some smooth-skin, sweet, slicing cucumbers that exhibited many of the petite qualities of picklers. Now the final product of those early selections, Sugar Crunch, is touted as the variety that ''will do for cukes what the famous Sugar Snap did for peas.''

Searching for, or breeding, new and improved varieties is a never-ending task for seed and plant companies wishing to stay competitive. So is the early spotting of new trends in gardening. And, while miniature roses are not exactly a new trend, their steady increase in popularity has prompted more and more conventional rose growers to include miniatures in their offerings.

Other established gardening trends that continue to gather steam are the popularity of sunflowers and the marked interest in ornamental grasses. Water gardens are also turning up in more yards around the country, even on town-house patios, as people discover how simple they are to maintain. While pastels remain popular, there is also a surging demand for bolder colors in today's garden.

Yet another emerging trend, confirmed by early-season sales, is the return of enthusiasm for home-grown vegetables. ''Our vegetables are outselling ornamentals so far this season,'' says George Ball, president of the Burpee company. Indeed, these new and returning food gardeners will find much that is new this year.

Besides Sugar Crunch, other notable edibles from Burpee are Sweet 'n Slim, which produces long slender ears of full-sized corn on cobs that are barely wider than the kernels themselves, and a compact bush form of that longtime favorite tomato, Big Boy.

Bush Big Boy offers the same taste and productivity on a plant that is half the size. For years the Sweet 100 hybrid has topped the cherry-tomato taste charts, but Johnny's Selected Seeds now has a significant challenger in a variety called Matt's Wild Cherry that rates a high 11 on the Brix chart, which measures sugar content.

New to the United States, the plant is well-known in parts of eastern Mexico where it grows wild. The wife of a student at the University of Maine brought some with her from her home state of Hidalgo, and Johnny's has spent the last few seasons increasing seed quantity of what many staff members view as a new taste sensation in tomatoes.

Sixteen years after introducing the famous Sugar Snap pea to the world, Calvin Lamborn and Rogers Seed are introducing Super Sugar Snap, a slightly earlier, shorter, and arguably better-tasting pea than its famous predecessor. But the principal reason for the newcomer's development is its improved disease resistance.

Better disease resistance is also the reason for introducing Super Cayenne II pepper as a replacement for the 1990 All America Selections medal winner, Super Cayenne. The new variety produces somewhat longer (5 inches) and hotter fruits (50,000 to 60,000 units on the Scoville heat index). Both Super Sugar Snap and Super Cayenne II are found in mail-order catalogs.

Among ornamentals, Thompson and Morgan offers a striking dwarf marigold (12 inches tall). Mr. Majestic, as it is called, comes in bold yellow and mahogany stripes. A double-flowered poppy in varied colors known as Angels Choir is another colorful T&M introduction. Listed in the Burpee catalog is a striking poppy from Australia. Breeders down under have enlarged and brightened the Icelandic poppy's color range in an offering called Spring Sherbet.

New sunflowers crop up in several catalogs. Included among them is a dwarf 12-to-15-inch-tall variety called Big Smile from Johnny's Selected Seeds that can be grown as a pot plant as well as in borders. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of grasses, Johnny's has added Fountain and Champaign to a growing list of annual ornamental grasses. Fountain grass produces elegant lavender plumes on 2-foot stems; Champaign, ruby-red seed heads on slightly taller stems.

Grasses are increasingly being used as filler material in bouquets, but ''just 10 stems of Champaign grass in a vase make a great bouquet,'' says Marylee Johnson, a floral designer at Johnny's. Out in the garden, grasses look good in all seasons. And they have a quality no other ornamental can match: ''They even sound good. When they rustle in the breeze, the sound is so peaceful it can put you to sleep,'' she says.

Drought resistance and ease of growing is another reason for the increasing popularity of grasses.

Ease of growing and maintenance is also the reason water gardens are becoming more popular, according to Steve Frowine of White Flower Farm. ''All you have to do is fertilize occasionally and add water; nothing could be simpler,'' he says, noting that overwatering is one of the biggest destroyers of plants in the home garden. ''You can't overwater water plants. Ever,'' he says.

Water gardens also bring a new dimension to the home garden. ''It's more than adding another garden bed, you're introducing a new habitat to your home,'' he notes. Dragonflies, toads, and birds are all drawn to water gardens.

Meanwhile, Harm Saville will continue to add to his Scentsational series of roses. An apricot flowering variety will be out within months. ''There's a lot to choose from in miniature roses,'' he says.

Indeed, modern gardeners will find a lot to choose from wherever they look.

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