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Steps to Successfully Develop, Introduce and Commercialize New Plants

Jim Berry, Plant Development Services, Inc.

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 670
Loxley, Alabama 36551
Phone: 888-922-7374

A paper from the Proceedings of the 12th Metropolitan Tree Improvement Alliance Conference (METRIA 12), Landscape Plant Symposium: Plant Development And Utilization, held in Asheville, NC, May 23-25, 2002, co-sponsored by the North Carolina State University, North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, USDA Forest Service Southern Region, North Carolina Landscape Association, North Carolina Association of Nurserymen, The Landscape Plant Development Center, The North American Branch of The Maple Society, and The International Ornamental Crabapple Society.

Perhaps the way to address this topic is to describe the methods used by Plant Development Services, Inc. since that is what our company has done and strives to achieve.

Plant Development Services, Inc. (PDSI) was organized in 1998 for the purposes of crop improvement, cultivar development and marketing of new and improved superior landscape plants. PDSI is located in Loxley, Alabama, just a 20 minute drive east of Mobile, Alabama. In 2002 we are still focused on our original goals and we have added wholesale production and sales as additional objectives. Our nursery covers 25 acres including 180,000 sq ft of greenhouse. We are currently adding 10 acres of new production.

PDSI is a sister company to Flowerwood Nurseries of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Prior to 1998 new product development was internalized within Flowerwood Nursery. PDSI was separated from Flowerwood so patented plants could be objectively managed and maximized as a resource and so all Licensed Growers would be treated equally.

The focus of PDSI is on discovery, evaluation, production, marketing and licensing of new clones, primarily woody landscape plants, which are superior in horticultural qualities to cultivars which are in commerce. Most of our introductions have been evergreen shrubs but we have introduced one deciduous tree and two perennials. Sources of new landscape plants are private breeders, other nurseries and from our own programs. A new cultivar can originate from sport mutation, seedling selection or thru hybridization programs.

Superior horticultural traits that we are looking for includes but is not limited to:

  1. Pest resistance
  2. Stress tolerance
  3. Unique or superior foliage form or flowering
  4. Ease of propagation and cultivation
  5. Distinctive growth habits

We recognize that the consumer culture wants new and improved in their home, personal items and garden products. The perceived value of packaged products and advertised products is greater in tennis shoes and plants in the consumers mind. Consumers want innovation and style in everything they purchase.

PDSI is committed to long term enjoyment and success in gardening by our customer's customer because of the improvements of cultivars that we introduce.

Beyond satisfying the modern consumer we believe in diversity in the landscape. Over use of a limited numbers of species and clones has been boring to the eye and biologically hazardous because of monoculture. We all remember in the past and present the results of too many junipers, pear and photinia to mention just a few. Further more, plants go out of fashion and plants come into fashion. Examples of out of fashionable plants include ligustrum in the home garden, pyracantha, Chinese hollies, and photinia. We want to be the one to discover, introduce and capitalize the next red leaf lorapetalum, leaf spot resistant photinia, or multi season flowering evergreen azalea.

Cost associated with crop improvement can be quite high. Typical evaluations require 5 to 6 years in our facility. If an individual plant shows promise it must propagate efficiently and economically. It must be easy to cultivate, growing fast to moderately fast with minimum pest or pesticide applications. A new plant must be outstanding in horticultural qualities, superior in at least one way to similar cultivars of the same species within the trade. We attempt to develop new cultivars of familiar species. It is easy for the consumer to purchase new cultivars of familiar species or new species of familiar genus. To commercialize a genus that the consuming public finds foreign is difficult in the landscape trade and less so to the retail shoppers. Retail shoppers buy by impulse. If a plant is spectacular with curb appeal the home gardener will make the purchase because of the beauty they see in it today. Getting those spectacular specimens into the store in the first place may require packaging, marketing and salesmanship because some buyers know too much or do not take any risk. If your program of introductions to the market has a successful track record, the resistance by buyers is less.

When new plants are introduced the wholesale growers have to make a profit, the retailers or landscape contractor should make a profit, the new plants have to perform in the landscape the end user must realize extra beauty and success. Otherwise someone is being sold a bill of goods.

The Flowercarpet Rose is an example of plant introduction. Was it perfect? The model called for a network of growers throughout the country to produce 1 million units the first year. The Rose held a 95¢ royalty fee and $1.05 promotion fee. Over $1 million dollars went into consumer advertising and industry advertising. The rose was brought to market with point of purchase signage, nice label, and a pink, gold embossed container. However, the rose was not adapted in all climates and that fact hurt some growers and end users. We followed the Flowercarpet marketing plan when we introduced the Encore Azaleas® in 1997. It was cooperative production and marketing of a new plant that work. It was expensive but effective. When we advertised the Encore Azalea® in Southern Living at a very high price the response of the end consumer was dramatic.

Garden writers can be very helpful in plant introductions. Provided samples to plant, photography and descriptions, garden writers are very helpful in promoting new plants. We also trial new plants at public gardens and at university test sites. A good new plant, if in fact it is really good, will perform and gain creditable promotion through university trials. We have found it difficult to educate Landscape Architects about our new introductions.

If a plant is supported by an expensive marketing campaign there must be $75,000 to a $100,000 available to spend and 100,000 units market ready on a regional basis. At Flowerwood Nursery a new item not especially promoted but simply listed and shown at trade shows would require about 40,000 units at the introductory level if it is a ground cover, or mass planted shrub. Trees and accent plants can and should be introduced at a lower inventory level.

It is our aim to obtain a U.S. Plant Patent when justified. Without a patent a new plant cannot be promoted. If you try your first customers will be your competitors. Through licensing of patented plants our firm can justify the cost of 5-6 years of development and the cost of the patenting process. New introductions with limited market potential do not justify the patenting cost.

One must distribute significant numbers of the new plant at release so that commercial nurseries have stock to rapidly build inventory. New introductions which are distributed in small quantities to a few interested parties all too often get lost and will disappear. Even if they are not lost the commercial impact is much delayed. A good name can make a big difference in successful introductions. A good plant deserves a good name.

It is also helpful to coordinate the release, associated public relations and availability. Any press one might receive on the new cultivar is wasted without quantities of inventory to satisfy consumer demand caused by the publicity. Brochures, trade magazines, and gardening articles are useful press tools to successfully introduce new plants.

Small nurserymen and private breeders are our partners. Our firm will evaluate their discoveries and if justified pay for and apply for Intellectual Property Rights Protection for them. In return we receive assigned royalty rights of 50%. Then PDSI becomes the equal but managing partner. We have the rights and obligation to license, promote, and administer the contracts. This type of arrangement has been successful for both breeders and PDSI.

We seek potential licensee partners who are honest, financially sound and who have market and geographical position. The license contract offered by PDSI to growers generally calls for a per-plant royalty collected annually for each plant sold. Royalty amounts are carefully considered. We try to determine an amount not too high to inhibit establishment into the market. But we also try to set a royalty that will not leave money on the table. I think contracts should specify a royalty and a promotion fee.

The promotion fee would offer licensed growers assurance that the licensor would conduct some marketing and promotion of the product. Another concept in royalties which we apply is a percentage of sales. This strategy is applied when the new plant is in a commodity class where market prices fluctuate.

This allows the royalty to flex with the market. We license new Lirope cultivars with royalty as a percent of sales.

Introduction of a new cultivar into a wholesale nursery can be quite tricky. The bottom line is that growers need time to evaluate and figure out the new item. Growers must show interest the new crop to get correct culture beginning with propagation and finishing with spacing. That is your first sales job!

The second necessary sales job at the wholesale level is to the customer and service/sales staff. If they have not psychologically bought the new plant and believe in it then they will not sell it to their customers.

This is an exciting time in the nursery and landscape industry. Introducers of new plants have the opportunity to lead the industry where we want it to go. New garden product with long term value is exactly what consumers want. Along the way with lots of effort everyone can win and become more satisfied with profits and achievement. That is possible and that is our goal.

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Format updated January 15, 2009