Every year, the Gardens at Ball facility in West Chicago, Ill., becomes host to Darwin Perennials Day, a new varieties showcase and an opportunity for horticulture professionals to share knowledge and insights into perennial breeding methods.
Bringing together growers, breeders, wholesalers, retailers, suppliers and other industry figures, the annual event gives attendees an opportunity to tour the trial gardens and displays surrounding the Ball Horticultural Company’s headquarters. The trial beds and displays included more than 30 new varieties for 2017 from Darwin Perennials, Kieft Seed and Star Roses & Plants, as well as hundreds of existing plants on display from more than 30 suppliers.
See the photo slideshow below for a few of the varieties on display at Darwin Perennials Day.
The event also hosted dozens of suppliers showcasing their latest products and services, as well as guest speaker appearances by Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager and associate scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Paul Westervelt, annual and perennial production manager with Saunders Brothers, Inc. Both presented findings from their respective perennial trials and research programs.
Experts from the hosting companies were present to explain the breeding techniques and goals behind the many new varieties seen at the Gardens at Ball. Joan Mazat, senior business manager for cut flowers, poinsettias, geraniums and containers with Ball, said the perennials in the trial gardens for Darwin Perennials Day were grown in greenhouse settings in harsh conditions to test for summer performance. By testing the genetics of the perennials and breeding for color and balance, Mazat says the end goal of the trials is to ultimately provide better value and convenience for consumers.
“You’ve got to set people up for success,” Mazat says.
Using the Mirage line of Salvia greggii as an example, Karl Batschke, global product development manager with Darwin Perennials, said the breeding techniques employed by Darwin have made headway into creating longer-lasting, cold-resistant annuals that behave like perennials. Normally considered an annual in the Illinois climate, the Mirage salvias, which come in several new colors like Cherry Red, Violet and more, are now able to survive through winter like in warmer zones.
“They’ll have this kind of show all summer long and they’ll keep blooming beyond frost,” Batschke says. “You really need a hard freeze to knock them out. We had a late freeze this year in Illinois … and they were still blooming well into the third week of October. So, for a homeowner, they may not get that every year because you can get a killer frost in September too, but they’ll go well into the fall and give a lot of value.”
During his presentation, Hawke gave details on more than 28 perennial varieties that were evaluated in his “Best for the Midwest” research project, which is intended to find the hardiest and most valuable varieties for growers and gardeners in the Midwestern U.S. From Echinaceas and alliuims to clematis and geraniums, Hawke shared his thoughts on the performance of each variety that made the grade.
“Heucheras are the plant that started our trials,” Hawke says of the 'Cherry Cola' variety known for its vivid orange/red leaves and small white petals.
Hawke described the Stokesia laevis 'Honeysong Purple' variety as the “most consistent performer in our trial. The only thing with these guys is they don’t like wet soil.”
Adding his knowledge to the mix, Westervelt gave a talk on perennial varieties that have proven impact across multiple seasons and several applications in the home garden. He emphasized the concept of “making the jump” into home gardens with perennial style and challenging conceptions about what defines color and texture categories.
“Foliage is not just about green,” Westervelt says. “Fall color is not just about woodies.”
Did you attend Darwin Perennials Day? Let us know what you thought of the event in the comments below, and keep an eye out for these new varieties, design concepts and breeding techniques as the new year and growing season approaches.