I was really excited to be invited to a special workshop at RHS Wisley, entitled ‘Plants for the Future’, which brought together plant breeders, product developers, growers, national collection holders, plant licensing companies and other enthusiasts, all with the common interest of NEW PLANTS! The knowledge and skills in that room were quite phenomenal. I was asked to be on the panel too!

We had ‘cream of the crop’ speakers too, first up was Simon Crawford, who I admire for his horticultural networking, knowledge and eye for new plants.

His talk covered ‘breeding for the garden’, and interestingly explored the fact that plant breeding should give the home gardener a basket of options, not necessarily telling the gardener how to use a plant specifically.

He felt that the main important attributes were: visual impact, fragrance, sound (which is broader than you first imagine, such as the noise of bees visiting a rose flower during June, as they get inside the petals and roll around!), hardiness, lateness (for ongoing garden interest), as well as earliness (which is important for cutting commercial production times).

Simon also believes a plant achieving an AGM (award of garden merit) is very important, as this rigorous trialling system helps the home gardener know if a plant is suitable for use in ordinary conditions, of good constitution, stable in form, and has reasonable pest and disease resistance. But, in addition, he felt we need to consider climate change, for example drought-tolerant and wildlife attracting plants.

Simon also mentioned National Collections and how they could become more accessible for breeding material. This is something I agree strongly with, sometimes plants (and genetics) are hidden away, and are at risk of being lost, whereas, we need that gene pool to keep developing future plants..!

Our Plant Breeder, Charles, nodded along as Simon suggested there was much more to develop in delphiniums (although I think our thoughts were different to Simon’s- not saying anything!), and- surprisingly- Echinacea, which seems over-developed, BUT it has been at the expense of hardiness… He also touched on Antirrhinums, and suggested we look at the morphology of plants to see if we can enjoy longer-flowering specimens. The open-bloomed, penstemon-style strains of Antirrhinum would stay open and fresher for longer.

Lab techniques were touched on, where ploidy work can help to change flower size and give growing better resistances, however access to these services can be limited in the UK, little did we know what Kew Gardens were about to reveal! Techniques such as embryo rescue could also help those ‘almost impossible’ crosses to set.

Trials are important too. Did you know that we trial more than 1,000 lines at Thompson & Morgan every year? Importantly, plants must be selected in the right climate too, it’s amazing how often this doesn’t happen, a petunia selected in California will clearly struggle in the UK summer! And, we should be able to recognise the difference between a display trial and an assessment trial too!

Simon’s piece was really very interesting, and he touched on exactly what the UK gardener needs from new plants and plant breeders, citing David Kerley as a success story. David breeds world-class, mega-selling petunias from a modest site in Cambridgeshire, thanks to skill and diligence.


Next up was Roger Parsons, who admitted his business grew from ‘a hobby that got out of hand’. He chatted sweet peas, and I’m sure the room could smell them as we spoke! He showed us some real breakthroughs, and sadly a couple that were lost, as they weren’t ‘fixable’ in plant breeding terms! Imagine a sweet pea with a bloom like an iris…!

He explained that Sweet Pea breeding can be split into two areas; cut flowers and exhibition. Both uses need long stems, but cut flower forms don’t need to have large blooms, and an even spacing does not matter! A bounty of extra, crowded blooms simply means better vase life, whereas exhibition types only need four good, clearly visible blooms.

Roger is also a National Collection holder, with 1300 cultivars, and believes it’s am amazing resource, with genes from all around world! He stressed that the quality of seed stock is important. Smaller scale production can maintain first-class stocks, for example Spencer Sweet Peas. Larger scale production can be harder to police, and the crop is perhaps only rogued for colour, and not shape or plant form.

There’s been a resurgence in summer-flowering multiflora varieties with growers recently. Commercial production of these special types had almost died out, so an opportunity for english-grown cut flowers had opened up! Common Farm Flowers are one company that excels in UK-grown blooms.

Roger wowed us with a new variety from Keith Hammett in New Zealand, called ‘Pink Nines’, which was exactly that! 9 EXHIBITION QUALITY blooms, in glorious pink and evenly spaced on long stems.

The longest stems come from a variety named ‘Aphrodite’ though. It’s a monster, more like a gladioli than a sweet pea. The stems are 2.5ft long, with 15 flowers per stem. It’s similar to some new Japanese forms, but easier to get hold of! The Japanese always hold onto their most beautiful flowers.

Roger touched on Sweet Pea breeding too. I didn’t know that, by the time the flower opens, it’s already pollinated. This premature pollination is possibly the reason why individual Sweet Pea blooms don’t last that long. It also means that when hand-pollinating you must force the poor bloom open!

Then, we talked about YELLOW! That’s the holy grail colour in Sweet Pea breeding. Roger has some ideas, but isn’t there with an acid yellow variety yet. The Japanese are less patient, and actually dye white blooms yellow..!


Cecilia and Kazutomo were up next, to reveal Kew Gardens plans to open up their laboratories for commercial work. This excited our Breeder Charles, especially when it comes to techniques such as embryo rescue. Very often, seed pods need to get to a laboratory ASAP (much like an urgent kidney!)

Cecilia admitted she wasn’t a horticulturist from the off, a brave but wise move in a room of bulging knowledge!

It’s the first time that the Intellectual Property Office has given a grant to the development of new plant material too! Kew’s lab could propagate slow growing plant varieties, and offer ploidy manipulation and embryo rescue- basically opening up a whole new world for new plants! Exciting stuff!


Next up was the legend that is Graham Spencer, forceful yet humorous- his presentation really woke the room up. His role is what you might refer to as a ‘new plants agent’, helping breeders to raise money from their new plants. All too often, people breed new plants ‘for the love of it’, but wouldn’t you like to do that AND have a big cheque in your pocket…??

His role is complex; taking the plant through evaluation, contract preparation, royalty collection, royalty policing (!) and the final marketing. Graham is, of course, looking for the big bucks, but he also stressed that there’s a place for plants to be introduced that don’t sell in large volumes too, i.e. only 20 per year.

However, for a new plant to be eligible for Plant Variety Rights (and thus protected), it needs to be: novel, DUS (which means distinct, uniform and stable!) and have an eligible name. Once you’ve considered all this, there’s also the fees to consider, which can be up to 4,500 euro’s!

Choose your name carefully though, says Graham, you can’t call a plant Mickey Mouse, as it’s trademarked. You can’t choose a rude name either, although I know a new Passion Flower called ‘Silly Cow’, I wonder how that one got through! As long as the breeder code is used, you can use a different marketing name across Europe too. Sometimes this is essential, for example, ‘Pink Mist’ means ‘Pink Sh1t’ in German…!

Graham also agreed that trialling is vital, not just for garden performance, but also for commercial production. Growers must think of all sorts of things, even down to how big the plant will be on a delivery trolley! Thankfully, plants that aren’t suitable for bench sales can be used in mail order sales, and this is where Thompson & Morgan can often step in nicely! As we are selling the younger plant, the trolley fit or sales bench performance isn’t a consideration for us. So, yes, that is often me searching through the skip for discarded plants!

Of course, the result of a plant trial could be that the plant is NBD (no bl00dy good!)

Graham’s talk concluded with a summary, including a cheeky dig at the 500 quid T&M sometimes pay for new plants! He’s a rascal that one! Charles later pointed out to the crowd that very often a customer brings us a plant they’ve noticed is different (perhaps even spotted in a hedgerow!), and which sometimes need 6-7 years of breeding to actually fix it! But, when a customer has done some actual breeding, we often give royalty deals. Phew! Could have been a punch up there! 😉

After a picnic lunch, we circulated and networked. I chatted Saxifraga secrets with Plantagogo, was teased by Peter Plantipp with his sexy plant portfolio, got my cheeky Chelsea claws out with Rosy Hardy of Hardy’s Plants, and reported back on Cape Verde wild flowers to Sophie Leguil of Plant Heritage (err, i didn’t see any in the all-inclusive resort!)- oh, and I also met Derry Watkins of Special Plants, finally!

This was a really good day, and the open discussion after lunch was stimulating, and make a lot of sense. We need to help the gardening public understand how, and who to approach with their brand new plants. In my own role at Thompson & Morgan, new plants are my lifeblood. I want to help UK gardens constantly improve, with longer-blooming plants, plants with better resistances, weather-proof plants. And, with these stronger plants, those people who don’t think they have green fingers might start getting involved too! Oh, and I also want to have a bit of fun… (TomTato anyone??)


  • Lovely summary, thanks for keeping us updated, sounds like a really interesting day

    November 8, 2014
  • Sophie

    Reblogged this on Plant Heritage and commented:
    A great account of the “Plants for the future” workshop which was held last week at RHS Wisley Garden. Many Collection Holders were present (Roger Parsons Sweet Peas, Claire Austin Hardy Plants, Hoyland Agapanthus and Tulbaghia, Plantagogo heucheras..) and the essential role of National Collections as source of genetic material for plant breeding was discussed.

    November 14, 2014

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