It happens every year. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there, on a bench at the garden center, something catches your eye. Your heart races and you leap over bags of fertilizer to stake your claim. Maybe it’s a plant you’ve been enamored with for years but here it is in a new electric flower color, or with a creamy yellow edge on its leaves. Maybe it’s shorter and more compact (perfect for that container on your porch) or a super-sized, stop-traffic version. It could be a hardier form of something you assumed wasn’t cold or heat tolerant in your area, or a plant you’ve never even heard of before. Where are they all coming from?
In simple terms, new plants arrive on the scene one of two ways — someone “makes” them or someone “finds” them. New plants can be “made” because their genes allow so many possibilities. Breeders and hybridizers take advantage of this, moving pollen from one plant to another, sowing the resulting seed, and waiting to see what develops. Even a home gardener can create a new type of plant by following the same steps. But it can take years to achieve a really good plant — so cultivate patience while searching for that special daylily or iris.
Plants can be “found” in several ways. A branch can appear with leaves or flowers differing from the main plant (called a “sport”), cut off and rooted. Most of the coleus on the market today are the result of these surprising sideshoots. Or a propagator might look across a row of young plants and see one that stands out from the others. The variegated Polemonium reptans ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was found in a flat of otherwise green seedlings at the New England Wildflower Society. Unusual forms of plants can also be found in natural areas or gardens, and plant aficionados are always on the lookout, whether they’re hiking, visiting a gardening buddy or driving along a country road.
But what about new species? Haven’t humans covered the planet to the extent that there is nothing new under the sun? In fact some parts of the world still hold many secrets and plant explorers make yearly pilgrimages to Asia, South America and other exotic locales in search of new plants. Catalogs can sometimes only list them with a number — they’re so new no one even knows what to call them!
How can someone get a sneak peek at the latest thing?
- Visit botanical gardens and arboreta. They are dedicated to growing and displaying the newest, best and most interesting plants, and they often acquire them in advance of their availability to the general public. For example, the Chicago Botanic Garden is always trialing new plants.
- Some nurseries and garden centers install gardens in order to display plants in idea-sparking settings. Near Chicago, Ball Horticultural Company has recently redesigned its trial garden and this exciting venue now showcases plants in comparison plantings, and combinations of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. The Ball trial garden is open by appointment, though it occasionally has open days.
- Many universities have test gardens, often showing familiar forms of plants and new, improved types side-by-side for comparison.
- Specialist plant societies are a good source of leads on particular plant families that you might be interested in, like the American Hosta Society, American Hemerocallis Society, American Orchid Society and American Daffodil Society.
- The American Horticultural Society keeps its members up to date on new plants.
- Websites by plant societies, nurseries and plant aficionados can be another great source of information. Plants Magazine monitors new plants worldwide.
- Garden Design editors visit gardens, nurseries, and trade shows all year, scouting for the latest and most interesting plants. Each spring we feature favorites in our “Way Hot 100” issue — be on the lookout for it!