FCI sat down with ‘plant breeder’s agent’ Angela Treadwell-Palmer to discuss how her Plants Nouveau business has grown since its inception in 2005, identifying the significant issues for the industry and her plans for the future.
Plants Nouveau is a new plant introduction and marketing company, which does not sell plants, but acts as an agent. They support breeders with the introduction process, by navigating them
through the regulations of protecting their invention with patents and trademarks; and marketing the product for them, and making sure that the people who grow the new plants pay a royalty for every product they sell. The breeders and Plants Nouveau then use the royalty income to create and introduce even more new plants. Linda Guy joined Angela as a partner in 2011, bringing many new breeders with woody and tropical plants.
How did you start in the horticulture business?
“I have a University degree in Plant Science and Ornamental Horticulture. My first job out of university was working for Star Roses and Plants. I worked my way into a job managing the new plant introductions there and was fortunate to be on the cutting edge of plant introductions in the late 1990s with the introduction of the original Knock Out Rose. I went on to work at the Chicago Botanic Garden, managing their plant introduction programme called Chicagoland Grows. It was there that we introduced and marketed the very first commercially available orange echinacea. That said, I fell into some good places at the right time and made horticultural history.”
How important are novel plants for the industry?
“Plants that grow easier, require fewer chemicals, flower longer or have better flower colours, and plants that are novelty breakthroughs – like the first orange coneflower, are important for the industry. They keep the selection exciting, they can solve production problems, and they can be more profitable. These are all important to the growers. For the retailers and consumers, the novelty needs to solve a problem or just be a really cool, exciting new addition to their mix – a new colour or shape, for example.”
Ornamental plant breeders are the backbone of your company. Who are they, what ornamental crops do they focus, and where are they located?
“Our breeders are the company. Without them, there is no Plants Nouveau for we do not breed in house. We have breeders from all over the world that we are working with, and they each have a speciality. From hydrangeas to echinacea, small flowering trees and tropicals, we have a lot of bases covered.”
In deciding what breeders/breeding programmes to accept what is your criteria?
“We look for solutions. If a breeder has a plant that fits a consumer niche, or solves a consumer space and time concern, or solves a growing or shipping problem, we take it on for trialing. Of course, the plants need to be nice, look pretty and they need to perform in the garden as well.”
Who are your customers?
“Our customers are growers. From perennial and tropical liners to large tree farms and everything in between, we license growers to grow and sell the products we represent.”
Plants Nouveau touts itself as the fashionista of the new plants world. What are the significant, most fashionable breeding breakthroughs now?
“I would say our hydrangeas in the Everlasting(R) and Magical(R) lines from The Netherlands. There is nothing like them on the market. Their thick foliage, strong stems, and hard flowers in various colours do not exist elsewhere. I also think our Mariachi™ Helenium series is a breakthrough, the colours are so bold and the plants stay smaller than most. They are perfect for late summer colour in the garden and the greatest compliment to summer mum sales.”
You work both with large, commercial breeding companies and small, independent breeders. Typically the big ones often breed with the usually conservative growers. The latter mostly focus on the economic and technical aspects such as yield, plant habit, crop time, crop density, uniformity, transportability. Is this the right environment to present novel plants and new marketing ideas?
“We do find that the large growers are only concerned with the performance of the plant until it reaches the retailer, which is sadly putting plants on the market that do not perform well in the garden for the consumer, but they look really nice at retail. Retailers and consumers do want plants that will perform well in the garden, so we feel this is creating a problem for the future where consumers don’t trust that plants will live or they will think they killed the plant and that it is their fault. We realise that the big growers sell the most plants and if the plants can’t be sold through the big chains – we will make no money for the breeders, but the industry needs to be careful about not trialing plants in actual garden settings. This could backfire on us in the future and diminish consumer trust. They already know so little about gardening – if everything they plant dies, we will turn them all off. One of our biggest hurdles is competing for shelf space with the large breeding companies. Sometimes our plants are better garden plants, but they will never be grown by large growers because the big companies make it too easy and cheap for the growers. Therefore we work with large co-ops in the USA that sell to independent garden centres. These co-ops see the value in a plant being great in the garden, so they are willing to pay a little higher price to ensure their customers’ success.”
Do you think that true innovation is more likely to happen with dedicated and passionate plantsman who have ideas that will make a difference?
“I do think that the large breeding companies with dedicated breeders can make things happen more quickly. They can also guide their breeding to a specific trait. They can use one novel introduction and breed it to make a series of different colours in the same line. Independent breeders can do that, but it takes them much longer, so they spend their time looking for truly novel traits and working with unusual species to spice up the gene pool.”
If plant breeding is about solving the needs of today’s consumer. What are these needs precisely about?
“We feel the needs are consumer-based and we are trying to get more consumers in North America to garden. If we can get more people, who may have never bought a plant before, to buy a plant and fall in love with it – we can get them to garden. The gardening population in America is dwindling, but the house plant market is really picking up. We are using this trend in marketing and showing how our plants can do well in a pot – in a setting on a patio or porch or balcony or to show they too can be used in small spaces, and even spaces without gardens. Today’s consumers also want to know a lot of information about what they are buying. They need a ‘manual’ to take care of it, so we are developing tags and web based information that gives as much information as we can to help the consumer be successful.”
We live in a fast-moving, ever-changing world with ever-changing consumer behaviour; what is hot today is not tomorrow. The average plant variety market life reduces, and as a result, breeders’ returns are under pressure. In consequence, breeders may choose not to protect their releases. What’s your stand on this?
“Sometimes it’s okay to introduce a plant without a patent if you know there will be very few sales, but with the costs of the patent being less than $2,000, we feel there are not many plants that fit that bill. If you cannot sell enough plants to pay back a $2,000 patent, that plant should not be introduced. I will say that occasionally a plant comes along that cannot be patented, but it is so good that we feel it should be introduced. In that case, we will use a trademarked name to help get the breeder some money for his work.”
Speaking of plant protection, do you feel that novel plants have more protection under the Plant System in the USA?
“I feel the original plant is protected, but what we are missing in our laws in the USA are the essentially derived clauses that protect breeders from others breeding with their inventions – or finding sports and introducing them. There is much better protection for that in the EU, and we hear the USA is heading that way soon.”
The Plant System in the USA is nearly 100 years old but has barely advanced? What are its benefits and its deficiencies?
“The benefits are it is fairly easy to get a plant patent. The deficiencies are the same – it is fairly easy to get a plant patent. There is no true variety comparison, so look-a-like plants come along all the time. And – as stated above, we are lacking the essentially derived clauses that are available in other countries to protect the breeders.”
A new merchandising concept, a novel plant on its own will not get very far. The supply chain is showing more vertical integration with increased cooperation between breeders, propagators, growers, wholesalers, and retailers. What’s your company’s role in improving communication among such a so big and diversified set of actors?
“We work closely with companies who work closely with the big chain stores to try and come up with merchandising and marketing ideas that solve today’s consumer problems. We send trial pants out all over the USA and Canada to growers who help us evaluate the plants on a yearly basis. A lot of times, it is the independent retailers who want the marketing concepts, not the chains. The chains tend to want pretty plants that will sell fast based on an impulse buy. There is not much marketing or merchandising there. Monrovia is changing that, and we work closely with them to get out plants into their LOWES program. We are hoping their success will change the way the chains sell plants.”
The renowned Japanese plant breeder Mr Hiroshi Sakata predicts that this century will not be an easy one. To quote him: “It is impossible to know the full extent of the problems we will face in terms of responding to environmental changes and increases in population and ensuring biodiversity and safety. Nonetheless, vegetables nourish the body and flowers nourish the soul.” In light of this, what is your company’s future mission?
“In today’s sad, angry, hostile world, we feel flowers and pretty gardens which not only nourish the gardener’s soul but feed wildlife and the people who garden there are most important. Plants need to do something for the consumer or the other creatures that live on that property.”
Researchers in the USA have the go-ahead to use geneediting techniques to alter crops and plants. The decision opens the door for scientists to create a new generation of genetically modified crops without severe restriction. In contrast, the EU’s top court has ruled that plants (and animals) created by innovative gene-editing technology have been genetically modified and should be regulated as such. What is your stand on this as this might be a hindrance when exporting gene editing ornamental crops to Europe?
“The large breeders we work with are mainly in the EU and Australia, so we do not see this being a problem right now for Plants Nouveau breeders. In the future, we hope to work with more university breeding programs and we know they will be using gene modification techniques, so we know this is coming and we will just have to work harder for those breeders in the North American market – knowing these plants are not going to be allowed especially into the EU.”