Humans have been breeding and selecting plants for millennia. And this ongoing endeavour has produced some truly extraordinary outcomes. One of the most dramatic being the progeny of Brassica oleracea. This single weedy looking coastal plant from the Mediterranean (it looks like oil seed rape) has been bred and developed so extensively that it has spawned numerous offspring including broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, romanesco and kale.

Vegetable bed with different brassicas
All of our common brassicas, from kale to broccoli, have been bred from a wild cabbage

That’s right, all our key brassicas are essentially just one plant developed into different shapes and forms through decades of selection and crossing. The driver behind this is of course food production and the development of palatable, (well if you exclude kale!) nutrient-rich vegetables. But what drives ornamental plant breeders and why do they continue to hybridise and develop new cultivars? It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it's all about the bottom line, AKA profit, but I believe a whole load of additional factors are behind the drive to create new plants.

I remember a set of gorgeous (and novel) phlox appearing some 20 years ago. I was so excited, until they all died after the first year and I’ve never seen them listed or sold again.

Historically, much ornamental plant breeding was driven by curiosity, experimentation and novelty. Back in the 1930s, a nurseryman tried hybridising two conifers to create what is known as a bigeneric hybrid, in other words a plant with near equal proportions of both its parents' genes. The outcome was a very fast-growing evergreen conifer that could be neatly clipped as a hedge. It took the public a while to embrace this new conifer but by the 1970s x Cuprocyparis leylandii (the Leyland cypress or leylandii) was outselling all other conifers combined. And, as we now know, this new wonder plant didn’t turn out quite as expected!

Leyland cypress is a cross-breed and isn't found in the wild. Getty images
Leyland cypress is a cross-breed rather than a naturally occurring conifer. Getty images

Today, a whole range of factors drive ornamental plant breeding. Perhaps, one of the most significant, is novelty. If a nursery can produce a unique new plant with appealing qualities and vitally a good name, they can shift some serious volumes of stock. Take Canna Tropicana ™ for example. It was mired in controversy for years thanks to protracted legal wranglings. These were focused on who had actually bred it and secured the breeding rights because its novel striped leaves made it an instant runaway success, around the world. But novelty factor can also induce nurseries to introduce new plants too quickly.

I remember a set of gorgeous (and novel) phlox appearing some 20 years ago. I was so excited, until they all died after the first year and I’ve never seen them listed or sold again. I believe this was simply because the nursery was a little over enthusiastic in releasing what were neither strong, nor genetically stable plants. But other nurseries and breeders do cynically and deliberately breed weak, but very pretty plants, arguably to drive you to buy replacements year after year. This is the case for some of the new heucheras and echinaceas which are introduced annually.

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Gaillardia 'St Clements' is a tall variety that likes a sunny spot. Getty images
Gaillardia 'St Clements' is a tall variety that likes a sunny spot. Getty images

Equally, great plants which are both strong and stable can appear by chance. The gorgeous Gaillardia ‘St Clements’, introduced by Hardys Nursery, was a chance seedling in a batch. And the stunning Verbascum ‘Helen Johnson’ (at one point the bestselling verbascum in the country) was a random discovery on a compost heap! On the other end of the spectrum, nurseries such as Raymond Evison Clematis deliberately breed and cross over 10,000 new plants a year, often only resulting in one new plant that is deemed worthy of naming and release.

Verbascum 'Helen Johnson' is suitable for a herbaceous border or for growing in containers
Verbascum 'Helen Johnson' combines irresistible colours with strong and reliable growth

Long flowering, scent and disease resistance are significant attributes many hybridisers aspire towards, not least the UK rose breeders such as David Austin, Harkness and Dickson. This process can take decades, but yields some of the amazing roses we get to grow. However, arguably the biggest factor driving breeders today is scale. Numerous growers are focused on producing ever smaller plants with ever larger flowers.

Have you seen the frankly odd-looking primroses that have blooms so huge that just a few entirely obscure the small rosette of foliage beneath them? Some may argue that this shrinking of plants is to suit public demand and smaller gardens, but I suspect its being driven by something different – profit margin. The shorter a plant is the more of them can be stacked onto a Danish trolley for shipment and sale. The wild species of Verbena bonariensis, for example, is around 1.2m tall meaning you can only fit a single shelf of them on a Danish trolley. However, Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ has been bred to reach a mere 40cm, meaning you can have three or more shelves of them on a single trolley and therefore three times the profit and lower shipping costs. True, this plant may suit some people growing in pots, but I doubt that is the sole motivation for the breeding.

Verbena Bonariensis 'Lollipop' with Lagurus ovatus
The diminutive Verbena bonariensis 'Lollipop' growing with Lagurus ovatus

So, it seems many different things drive contemporary ornamental plant breeding from novelty, beauty and longevity to more cynical factors such as profit margin. But the exciting thing is that is it still happening and we are blessed with hundreds of talented breeders determined to win us over year after year with their latest offerings. Just remember, some of those offerings will be better than others.

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