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Cornucopia - Too much choice

Too much ‘choice’
Joe Sime

Choice is one of the demigods of the current age. Marketers and politicians alike bombard us with the belief that what matters is choice. In both cases they seem to hope that a plethora of options will distract us from the fact that none present any really distinctive quality.

Unfortunately the same is true of plant breeders and nurserymen. The current RHS Plant Finder lists around 160 named varieties of penstemon (I am not counting 'God’s varieties' i.e. the species) and around 150 of Hydrangea macrophylla. Each year more are added. My sympathy goes to the poor keepers of national collections. How do they cope with this nonsense? It is time that we gardeners took a stand.

The first thing to realize is that difference is not the same as distinction. Any seed-grown plant (with the rare exception of apomixes) is different from its parents in the same way as every human being (except an identical twin) is unique. But this difference does not mean that they must be cloned to preserve the difference in perpetuity. What matters is whether the new individual shows some distinctive feature that makes it worth buying.

The difficulty is of course in defining what 'distinctive' means. I would like to propose that a feature is only really distinctive if a normal gardener with a liking for the particular genus would recognize it monadicly (i.e. in the absence of others for comparison). Let us take an example. Any person who likes hydrangeas would recognize white double sterile florets on a lacecap as distinct and may well even be able to name the variety as 'Hanabi' (syn. 'Fireworks') even if there were no other hydrangea in the vicinity. They would find it impossible to recognize any distinctive feature amongst the many varieties of mid-pink mop-heads under the same conditions. It is often hard even when they are growing side by side! The distinctiveness may also be in a combination of features rather than a single new feature. For example the Hydrangea macrophylla 'Jogasaki' is distinctive in that it is a lace-cap with double florets like Hydrangea macrophylla 'Hanabi', but they are light blue. It is this combination that is distinct and recognizable. However, minor changes in colour shade are not distinctive. The test is whether they are perceivable monadicly, not whether you can see the difference with the help of shade cards!

In their search for distinctiveness plant breeders will develop plants with minor changes as 'steps along the path' but these should not be named and should not enter the trade. If we accept this as the criterion for the acceptability of distinctive varieties how do we get this across to the trade? We need to encourage the RHS to introduce a new quality mark for varieties that can be perceived as distinctive by the ordinary gardener and we should boycott all new varieties that do not carry the mark. This should be easy for them to do. It does not require the lengthy trials needed for the AGM. All they have to do is ask a few gardeners to look at it.

This deals with new varieties, but there is still the backlog of indistinguishable varieties already on the nursery lists. Here we need the help of the specialist societies and groups. They should go through the 'back catalogue' and select a set of varieties that are monadicly different from each other and capture all the main features of variation in the species. I estimate that for Hydrangea macrophylla there are probably about 20.

This is not a police state, and furthermore I do not wish to prevent the penstemon anoraks from having fun. All the trivial varieties could still be available from specialist nurseries, it is just that the rest of us more balanced individuals would not be confused. If it did not have an RHS mark we would know not to bother with it. And, who knows, if we can do it for plants today, tomorrow it could be washing powders, schools or even political parties.

First published in the Shropshire Group Newsletter, January 2006
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 23
© Copyright for this article: Joe Sime

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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