Variations on a Theme: New Plant Varieties Spark the Spring Season
Breeders improve flower stocks and colors, plus vegetable taste and hardiness
Harm Saville, a longtime breeder of miniature roses, remembers well a moment in 1989 that sent his heart racing just a little bit faster.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.