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New plant cultivars appeal, but will they perform?

March 15, 2012

'Northern Lights' hybrid azaleas, developed at the University of Minnesota, are research-trialed cultivars northern gardeners can invest in with confidence.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (3/15/2012) —Paging through plant catalogs in search of exciting new cultivars is a time-honored tradition during Minnesota's long winter. But Kathy Zuzek, a University of Minnesota Extension horticultural educator, advises: "Before investing, find out if the cultivars you desire have been shown to perform well in Minnesota gardens."

Nurseries and catalog retailers should provide customers with the best performing plant selections for the climate and other growing conditions of the customer's location, but the trend in horticulture is to move new plants onto the market in the shortest possible time frame.

"In the blink of an eye, newly introduced cultivars disappear from garden centers and catalogs and new plants take the limelight," says Zuzek.

This creates some problems. Cultivars—plants developed for distinctive traits that set them apart from other plants in the same species—are now introduced to Minnesota gardeners from around the world. When rushed to the market, the plant's performance in Upper Midwest gardens might skip their turn in evaluation trials.

Purchasing inexpensive, fast-maturing, un-trialed cultivars might be worth the risk. You could get lucky and discover a new favorite plant. Zuzek warns that it is much riskier to buy expensive un-trialed shrubs and trees that take years to reach maturity.

If newly introduced cultivars are displaced quickly by even newer cultivars, they might prove to be a good performer in our Minnesota gardens after they have already been removed from nursery catalogs. Alas, you'll never know what could have been.

The emphasis on the new and exciting may also eliminate older cultivars from the nursery trade. What if older cultivars that have proven their long-term landscape value are replaced with un-trialed cultivars that fall short of the mark?

Zuzek suggests that wise gardeners can help solve these problems by asking "What's good?" rather than "What's new?"

Need help finding out "what's good"? Here are some of Zuzek's suggestions:

Look to land grant universities and affiliated Extensions. The University of Minnesota is home to research programs that develop cultivars of turfgrasses, herbaceous perennials, ornamental shrubs and trees, and fruit crops for the Upper Midwest. These cultivars are highlighted on Extension's Minnesota Hardy website. Information on garden plant selection can also be found on Extension's Garden website.

Ask an Extension Master Gardener. County-based Master Gardeners regularly educate in their communities, so don't hesitate to approach them when you see them. You can also ask online and receive an answer within approximately 48 hours.

Visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to view plants that grow in Minnesota's hardiness zones. The arboretum is home to thousands of ornamental cultivars of annuals, herbaceous perennials, ornamental shrubs and trees, and vegetables and fruits. Also, check out the Plant Info section on the arboretum website.

Take advantage of the information available from plant evaluation programs. The All-America Selections program and the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plant Evaluation program evaluate and identify garden plants for superior performance. The horticultural garden at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. is home to one of the 47 All-America Selections test sites.
Media Contact: Catherine Dehdashti, U of M Extension, (612) 625-0237,

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