In ‘n’ Out, Back ‘n’ Forth

 New Plant Frontiers
Parts 2 & 3

Here are the middle sections of my speech for today, April 3 and tomorrow, April 4 at 1:30 P.M.  Also, we have the hellebore expert and new plant explorer Simon Crawford speaking at 11:00 A.M. both days on the timely subject of the Lenten Rose.  Even if it’s a bit rainy, wear your rain clothes, come see our woodland hellebores, hear our speeches and buy some exciting new plants.  Food and hot chocolate are available.  Gate proceeds go to The Garden Conservancy.  So please come and hear the finale of my speech and the entirety of Mr. Crawford’s.

Part 2 – In And Out The Door

The second illustration of the primary principle being the location and position of the customer, can be found in the little known “unseen half” of horticulture, which is its indoor ornamental part.  Indoor horticulture, that is not concerned with hydroponics or cultivation of greenhouse vegetables and herbs, can be divided into two main categories.

The first category is cut flowers which is a huge industry and, so to speak, of one piece, or on its own.  In vegetables this would be like the onion industry or the potato industry.  Like them, the cut flower business is so large that it dwarfs all other parts of ornamental horticulture combined, has a vertical structure and independence that makes it its own category, and is located mostly overseas.  In other words, it runs itself, and often the players act like “captains of industry”, which is an unusual behavior in horticulture, since in general it is fragmented and comprised mostly of rural families.

However, think about the customer.  The buyer is usually female and, ultimately, the end user is almost always a female.  The product is both perishable as well as highly fragile and is placed carefully in a fragile vessel in a room, usually in the winter when the air is dry and light levels low.  Its life is always very short in comparison to all other parts of horticulture.  Yet, conversely, it makes an enormously powerful impression and is associated with great but short-lived passion.  This is a truly unique, specific and quintessentially niche market.

The other great part of this “unseen half” of horticulture is the pot plant market.  Except for a relatively small percentage of the Deep South, as well as a small amount sold during the summer, the overwhelming majority of pot plants are indoor plants.  What is interesting is the contrast with cuts, even though they are both kept indoors.  First, this market is extremely fragmented at all levels—from production to consumption—in comparison to cut flowers.  Why?  The many distinctions in taste as well as usage on the consumer level can be explained by the fact that pot plants live a long time in the home.  Therefore, they become for most folks an indoor garden.  Consumers develop a personal,  gardenesque relationship to pot plants.  They actually get to relate to them over time.  Each type of pot plant possesses a subtle and quaint quality that softens the home, much as a garden softens a yard.  They are an elegant touch of civilization in what is, after all, a boxy, sterile indoor world.

So, in contrast to outdoor gardening, the context of this indoor horticulture varies little.  It is a world of rooms that are dry, warm, and, since it’s usually winter, dark most of the time.  Now, compare this to the outdoors.  The outdoor garden varies tremendously—especially in comparison to the indoors.  Also, there are profound variations from street to street, county to county and state to state.  Plus, over time, there can be tremendous changes in any garden’s physical environment.  So I point these things out to underscore the great importance of looking very closely at the location and condition of the customer.

Part 3 – Backwards And Forwards

This brings us to the discussion of the new frontiers in plant breeding:

My predecessor, David Burpee, owned and ran the company from 1915—at age 22—to 1970, when he was 77.  Therefore, he reigned for 55 years, 5 short of the sacred number of 60 in China, where his wife, a missionary’s daughter, was born and raised.  He’d have liked to reach 60 for sentimental reasons, but he’d had a long run that covered four wars, including two global ones, a major depression and the entire two decades of the post WWII boom.  He lived and consulted full-time for the company until his death in 1980 at age 87.  For this reason of his long life in horticulture—nearly that of a Chinese emperor—I follow his advice closely.  He has inspired me to look to the heavens for future plants.

Not so fanciful as it seems:  the ancient Hindus, Chinese, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans—all named many of their plants for heavenly bodies, celestial phenomena and meteorological events.  The Greeks and later the Romans tended later to name them also for their deities.  Only lately have we adopted the habit of naming our plants for their discoverer, a nearby town, river or valley, or their children.  The future that Mr. Burpee saw in the 1960s was interplanetary hybrids—literally “Man In The Moon” marigolds, indeed!  He anticipated last month’s launch of the Kepler telescope satellite, which will explore 24/7 for three years an area the size of your hand extended from your arm in the direction of the constellation Lyra.  There are estimated to be over 150,000 suns in this relatively small section of the sky within the range of the telescope.  If just one percent of them qualify to have a chance of having a solar system similar to ours—which is not so unlikely—then over 1,500 candidates for a planet similar to earth exist in just that fraction of the sky.  These are good odds for finding life similar to ours:  one earth like planet in 150,000 chances.  One in 150,000 chances—in the direction of Lyra—a relatively small constellation itself, and one of several hundred its size in the earth’s night skies, or what we so quaintly call “outer space”.

The brief time from the Wright Brothers to the 1969 moon landing is a testimony to the essential power of technology.  This quantum leap was due to huge breakthroughs in applied physics, which were fruit of about 100 years of physical science beginning in the early 1800s—so about 150 years—a blink of time in American history.

But how unique?  Consider the domestication of plants and animals.  Many believe these were fairly rapid changes, that societies quickly adapted and also extended these new technologies—the ox, horse, wagon, dogs for night protection, cats for granary protection.  Extremely useful technologies—because they were mostly the result of the technology of selective breeding.  Consider even the psychological meaning that the wild goat possessed.  The “scapegoat” was no abstraction—the actual animal was required.

As were crop improvements—an ancient journey with truly revolutionary and life-changing transformations along the way:  wheat, rye, oats, rice in the tropics of Asia and corn in the tropics of Americas, herbs such as onions, garlic and the rest of the Allium family—subjects of such power to influence that there were festivals and dieties related to them in ancient Egypt for over 3,000 years.

The apple—unrecognized if you saw it in the wild and very unpalatable to us.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 3rd, 2009 at 3:00 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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4 Responses to “In ‘n’ Out, Back ‘n’ Forth”

  1. apoppy said:

    I love reading your newsletter. You have so much insight. Any thoughts or input on the current issue of seed saving, organic gardening and H.R. 875? The information I have read so far is very frightening.
    Some are dubbing it Monsanto’s Dream Bill.

  2. HENRY OFFUTT said:

    Please continue your wisdom of words, they are as always both informative and educational. Though I can not purchase much as i would like, due to a series of strokes and job loss I still look forward to you word!!!!

  3. Robert Smith said:

    I really liked your blog it will open many folks eyes on this subject. Very well written and will be looking forward to reading more in the future.

  4. Paul Brown said:

    I found your blog and read a few of the posts. Keep up the good work. I am looking forward to checking out more from you in the future.

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