CAST 2022 took place in various locations throughout California at the end of March, giving growers, owners, seed brokers, and even us horticulture media folks a chance to “kick the tires” on what’s new in 2022 and what’s coming for 2023.
While the new plant introductions are clearly the star of the show, it's also one of the first chances during the new production season to get out and talk about what’s happening in horticulture.
While in years past there was a lot of COVID-19 talk, this year, the pandemic and all its assorted implications (supply chain, labor woes, etc.) seemed to take a backseat for the week. Attendees were in mostly positive moods coming off two straight years of strong plant sales, and nobody seemed to want to dwell on what’s happened in the past. Onward and upward, as they say!
There were many common threads between the various breeder sites and the discussions happening within them, though.
Here are six trends that we noticed while making our way up the California coast back in March:Filling (the rest of) the production calendar:
Breeders are introducing new varieties and cultivars with the purpose of helping growers keep their greenhouses filled and humming (and their workers employed) for as much of the calendar year as possible. “We want to make sure that growers have the seasonality that they need,” Katie Rotella, Ball Horticultural, told us at the Ball stop in Santa Paula. “It could be from the genetics themselves, maybe it’s a new petunia that flowers at a 10-hour day length — like with our E3 Easy Wave — so growers can put things into flower as soon as they can.” Plants that can be started in late-spring or summer and ship out for fall retail were also featured prominently by many of the breeders.
Ensuring (new) grower success:
When 18 million new gardeners take up the hobby in such a relatively short time frame, you can bet that flower breeders the world over took notice. That means building in more robustness — whether that’s low moisture tolerance or stepped-up disease protection packages — to try to make sure nobody has a bad experience. “We want to make sure that the genetics we’re releasing are upgraded and innovative to the degree that success for the professional grower during production also means success for the new gardener when they get that plant home, too,” Rotella added.
Here come the plant brands:
Breeders are proving adept at pull-through marketing as well, with many new introductions going the way of fully branded, holistic campaigns that include all sorts of custom POP promo materials like exclusive pots and labels (Sakata’s SuperCal all-weather petunias branding) and unique, millennial/Gen Z-focused vibes. Among the latter was Benary’s new Ptilotus ‘Matilda’ cut flower, which comes complete with its own edgy backstory (she is Ptilotus Joey’s hip and trendy older sister, with a tattoo sleeve that she proudly displays under her wedding gown) and unique feel. With this younger generation’s love of the Marvel Universe and DC heroes, it makes sense that flower marketers are giving new introductions origin stories that call out to like-minded consumers. Suntory (Santa Barbara) even had a new petunia intro that it co-branded with a brand of German flavored seltzer. “It kind of starts with us saying ‘How can we make this, you know, something that people gravitate towards?’” Jen Calhoun, Benary marketing specialist — North America told us regarding Matilda. “And we’ve put a lot of effort into that. A lot of it is just asking questions and figuring out what’s relevant with the younger plant people.”
Distinct textures and bold (bi) colors:
There were some interesting uses of flower texture and (of course) a TON of new color and even bi-color introductions in California. It seems like white is very popular with plant breeders of late, especially on varieties that feature the trendy darker foliage that really helps set off that contrast. American Takii (Salinas) featured its new ruffle-leaf, flowering cut kale series, Crane Ruffle. It really adds something (unique shapes and textures) when used in floral arrangements and bouquets. And there were shining examples of new bicolor innovations at nearly every single stop. Danzinger’s RIMarkable petunia series was one such instance with its large, distinct white rim on each bloom for what the breeder calls “unique retail appeal.” Westhoff’s Hot + ‘Blue with Eye’ Lobelia was another interesting use of contrasting hues in blooms.
Veggies, veggies, veggies:
Since this was only my second CAST trip of my relatively short time in horticultural media, it’s tough for me to say whether there were more vegetable plant intros this year than in years past. Yet, it did seem like a big focus for many of the breeders, whether it was PanAmerican Seed’s Kitchen Minis series, the 16 new outdoor veggie varieties from home garden giant Burpee (Ball Seed brand), or Prudac Breeding Specialties’ new line of CEA peppers and tomatoes — being trialed as we speak by NASA up in space on the International Space Station. Vegetable introductions look to have found a home at CAST. As Calhoun shared with me, many of the new plant parents started with backyard veggies before taking on the challenge of ornamentals, so it makes sense we’re seeing a greater focus on the Victory Garden.
New hort tech, too:
Show up for the plant intros, stay for the new hort technology drops! Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it seems like the breeders are recognizing that CAST attendees are the perfect grower focus group to show off innovative technologies and products. Benary focused on its environmentally friendly seed treatment platform, Be Green, which was conceptualized in 2014. The update for this year is that the system now boasts just over 30 crops that it can improve with quicker germination and faster early-stage development. And the treatments are all chemical and micro-plastics free, so it improves seed quality and it’s sustainable. Win-win. And Dümmen Orange (Avila Beach) gave us a quick update on what’s new with its popular Basewell AutoStix technology. “What we’re working on now is really meant to be more of a rooted cutting versus the clip,” Rebecca Siemonsma, product manager — North America, told us, noting the shift was prompted by increased grower adoption of ISO machines for transplanting. “The technology that we’re working on today is more of a coated, calloused cutting with root initials. The coating does the same thing that it does in the clip, but now it can be used in the ISO machines.”