Seed vs. Vegetative By Bridget White

If it has been a while since you traversed the Rockies and made it to the Farwest Show in Portland, Ore., you’re missing out (look for full show coverage next month). Not only is it one of the best-attended industry shows in the nation, but it’s also one of the most beautiful. The almost full-size trees, open floor plan and display gardens make this show feel more consumer than trade.

And while the show intermingles all the products of our industry — shade trees beside bedding plants and orchids beside tabletop fountains — this is not the case with producers. They still see themselves as tree growers or color growers or whatever. Probably a necessary distinction given the different growing conditions/methods, but I wonder how long these kinds of categories will last.

We see a paradigm shift even within our small world of greenhouse production. Fast-turning perennials and pre-finished woodies are being incorporated into product mixes, and growers have stopped worrying about the form of their plant material, focusing instead on profitability. The decision to use rooted or unrooted, seed or vegetative no longer carries the importance it once did.

As consumers blur the boundaries between annuals, perennials and woodies, and breeders improve genetics origination becomes less of an issue. Does it really matter if your geranium comes from seed or cuttings, as long as it performs?

Real Differences?

I’m not arguing that seed and vegetatively propagated crops are always the same. There are just too many examples to the contrary: For quicker finish and garden performance seed verbena can’t compare to the vegetative version, and vegetatively propagated coleus has a better color palate and more foliage forms than its seed cousin.

Yes, for years now, vegetatively propagated material has been the hallmark of quality. We are told that vegetative plants branch better, grow more aggressively, remain true to type and finish faster. Even the significantly higher price of cuttings compared to seeds has not been enough to change the tide…until now.

A New Breed

PanAmerican’s recent introduction of seed-propagated angelonia, nemesia and diascia have caused quite a stir in the industry. These crops have everyone wondering if the trend in propagation material is about to turn back toward seed items.

Early results from some of the field trials on Serena show branching and performance equal to vegetative angelonia, and growers are buying up the seed as soon as they can. Sure, you won’t get as many designer colors from the seed type, but do gardeners really want 15 colors of angelonia? Probably not. For growers used to paying 8-20 cents per plant, the new seed version seems like a steal and opens the opportunity for making a nice margin…that is if we don’t lower asking price because the inputs were lower.

And from my perspective this is what’s most important. I don’t think anyone really cares what shape — seed or cutting — the product is in when it arrives. What they care about is how well it grows and how much money they can make on it. Growers in Minnesota don’t prefer seed geraniums to zonals; their retail price is just too low to justify cuttings, and consumers are happy with seed.

I couldn’t applaud PanAmerican more for opening up these new markets to growers. I hope the near future brings other less expensive versions of vegetative standards…that is, as long as the quality stays the same. (Cheap is only good when it works.) We need to take a page from our friends at the Farwest and worry less about what kind of operation we are (“I’m not set up to root cuttings/crack seed”) and more about the end product.

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