Finding the favorites at CAST 2023 By Heather Machovina

There was no shortage of new and improved at California Spring Trials in March.

Keeping up with consumer trends, making sure varieties are easy to produce for growers and can withstand environmental conditions to please consumers, bringing new colors and textures to gardens — it’s what CAST is all about. Breeders have their work cut out for them, and while it can take years to produce a new variety for the market, there’s always impressive new genetics on display every year at CAST for growers to choose from to boost their product offerings.

Consumer favorites and top attendee picks were highlighted during our visit. Let’s have a look at some of them and our personal favorites from this year’s event.

Attractive Annuals

Petunias were plentiful this year with at least 10 breeders introducing new bold colors, improved hardiness and easier habits for growers.

Petunia ‘SuperCal Premium Red Maple’

‘SuperCal Red Maple’ is an all-weather petunia from Sakata that quickly bounces back after rain. It provides the same cold hardiness as other petunias but is also heat tolerant, so it’s a great option for extending into the fall season. It blooms from spring through fall with large, bright scarlet-red flowers that do not leave a sticky residue. It has a mounding, spreading habit and can grow up to 24 inches tall and 26 inches wide.

The SweetSunshine series brings unique colors to fully double petunia blooms with the new Blueberry Vein, Magenta Sky and Pink+Red Vein varieties from Selecta One. All three have vibrant flowers and are very durable, holding up in tough weather conditions. ‘SweetSunshine Magenta Sky’ is the first Sky pattern in double petunias, giving an eyecatching pattern that stuns in retail displays.

Petunia ‘SweetSunshine Magenta Sky’

Syngenta Flowers brought its A game to CAST with the creative coleus tree in a patio display. ‘Talavera Chocolate Velveteen’ was grown into a small tree over a year’s time by pruning and shaping, eliminating pinching and using PGRs to control the growth and maintain its habit. This new series can be used in traditional applications, is great for combos and has a tidy habit. It doesn’t fade or bolt and the colorful foliage patterns will not wane in sun or shade. Six colors are available for 2024 — Sienna, Burgundy Lime, Chocolate Velveteen, Chocolate Mint, Pink Tricolor and Moondust — with breeders working on more new additions.

Coleus ‘Down Town NYC Nights’

Named after popular U.S. places, the Down Town coleus series from Dümmen Orange brings seven new colors and patterns to the show. Columbus, NYC Nights, Santa Monica, Miami Magic, Vegas Neon, Greenville and Le Freak grow well in sun or shade, are late flowering and can be used indoor and outdoor. The compact habit works great in combos because it won’t take over. NYC Nights was a CAST favorite, with its dark burgundy leaves and lime green speckles mimicking the night skyline of the city.

Pollinator Paradise

A popular consumer buy continues to be pollinator-friendly plants. Honeybee populations and other native pollinators have been on the decline in the past decade, which puts our food supply at risk. Insects are responsible for pollinating more than one third of the food we eat and 80% of all plants, according to the USDA. Furthermore, there are over 100 fruit, nut and vegetable crops grown in the U.S. alone that depend on pollination, making pollinator conservation efforts important to everyone. Breeders are on par with the need for more pollinator plants in home gardens and have a lot of attractive new varieties to share.

Bidens ‘Blazing Star’

The new generation of bidens from Danziger is well-branched and requires little to no PGRs, maintaining its theme of “In Tune with Nature” this year. ‘Blazing Star’ produces masses of bicolor blossoms in deep orange outlined in bright yellow. It’s an early-flowering variety that thrives in landscapes, containers and combinations.

Fondly called “sunset in a basket,” bidens ‘Brazen Glowing Sky’ is a great option from Syngenta Flowers for combinations with its mounding, upright habit. It has a long season from early spring through summer with great heat tolerance. The flowers are fragrant and show off a unique pattern, providing great retail appeal for consumers. Every lavender plant we looked at during the trip was covered with bees; no doubt the number one pollinator pick for us!

Lavandula ‘Plum Power’

Available from Pacific Plug and Liner (PP&L), ‘Plum Power’ was eye-catching with its fresh lilac blooms that turn to plum with age. This compact variety will only reach 10 to 12 inches tall and is bred for better disease resistance. A great option for full sun in Zones 7 to 9. Beekenkamp is adding lavender to its offerings and will have five varieties available for 2024 including ‘Aromance Silver Blue’. This lavender has an upright habit, is winter hardy and is more resistant to botrytis. The long flowering period provides tons of blue/purple flowers that stand out against the silver foliage.

Fragrant nemesia varieties were another popular pollinator choice this year at CAST. The sweet scent was unmistakable as you approached the displays and the bicolor choices available for 2024 make it an easy pick.

Nemesia ‘Escential Cherryberry’

The Escential series from Westhoff — in collaboration with PlantHaven — is bringing five new varieties and two improvements to growers in 2024. All bred to have a strong tolerance to heat, these nemesias can be enjoyed from early spring through fall. The compact rounded habit is ideal for 4-inch pots and early season containers and baskets. The large, bicolor flowers are available in new Cherryberry (above), Elderberry Cream, Snowberry, Sunberry, Zazzleberry, and improved Blueberry Custard and Pinkberry.

Kientzler is introducing an upright, bushy nemesia with large flowers in a more uncommon color display. The orange bicolor flowers on ‘Nessie Up Mirabelle’ do not have the white lower petals like most varieties and are selected to fill larger containers. Mirabelle grows best in full sun, doesn’t require PGRs, and prefers 4- to 6-inch and gallon containers.

Great Gerberas

Gerbera ‘Garvinea Sweet Joy’

HilverdaFlorist is improving its Sweet gerbera series by replacing ‘Sweet Smile’ with the new variety ‘Sweet Joy’. It offers better disease, heat and cold tolerance and does not get powdery mildew. It can handle frost and is hardy to Zone 7. Plants are available from tissue culture and growers should expect a 12-to-14-week production cycle for this gerbera.

Gerbera ‘ColorBloom Watermelon Dark Eye’

New to the ColorBloom series from PanAmerican Seed, Watermelon with Dark Eye is a compact gerbera that requires little to no PGRs. This uniform series has larger flowers that won’t fade in high light, although the color holds best under lower light conditions. Watermelon is about 10 days faster to bloom than other gerbera and was bred for the quart retail market. It is available as coated seed, which gives growers a larger number of usable plants.

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