Stock availability: the big dilemma for plant-of-the-year scheme

Garden centres unable to fulfil demand as customers seek out plant of the year.

Morus ‘Charlotte Russe’: RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant-of-the-year winner unavailable to buy in garden centres
Morus ‘Charlotte Russe’: RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant-of-the-year winner unavailable to buy in garden centres

Stock availability continues to dog the Chelsea plant-of-the-year award with exclusive deals causing frustration among garden centre customers, says Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker.

The 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year winner Morus 'Charlotte Russe' is unavailable for consumers to buy. Suttons, which has an exclusive UK licence for a year on the plant, bred in Japan and represented by breeders' agent Plantipp, has managed to source 37,000 plants for sale over the next year. Suttons' Gavin Shaw says the company initially sold out of 2,500 and only expects to have 7,500 to sell by mail order in September.

"Another annoying winner from a supplier who will keep it to themselves and really annoy my customers," says Bunker. He wants tell his customers when they can buy the plant from his garden centre but is unable to do so.

Bunker points out that over the past couple of years, for example, his customers have asked for Thompson & Morgan's heavily promoted TomTato and Egg & Chips hybrids but he could not get hold of plants to sell. Another new plant he wanted to promote was the tomato from which Heinz Tomato Ketchup is made.

He says mulberries only sell a few plants a year, but now that Morus 'Charlotte Russe' has won the Chelsea prize his customers already want it. Suttons is convinced that no one in the UK has any stocks at present. However, RHS Wisley Plant Centre says it has "plentiful" stocks. Mojo Berry is the trade name under which this Morus will be introduced elsewhere in Europe.

Growers take the risk

Plants for Europe director Graham Spencer says growers take the risk on new plants so retailers should not grumble. "It is difficult in this particular case as few people would bet on a mulberry being a massive hit. In general, I think exclusivity is less of a problem than having enough plants to support a Chelsea launch. Also, I wonder if that retailer would be banging down the door for supplies if another plant had won. Growers won't gamble on the outcome of the Chelsea awards."

Garden writer Peter Seabrook says he understands the frustration over the release of RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year winners. "It is a very difficult situation because whether a breeder wins or not is pretty well roulette. The winner, if the plant is any good, then immediately needs many thousands of plants and if exclusive to a mail-order company it is a valuable way to recruit new mail-order customers."

The HTA National Plant Show later this month also has new plant awards. An HTA representative says growers entering plants for the award are allowed to have samples at garden centres, so they are tested in a retail environment. She adds that in contrast to the Chelsea plant award "the National Plant Show is more about next season and for the trade".

The background to the plant is that Hajime Matsunaga San in Japan, now aged 89, has spent 40 years making numerous crosses between different mulberries and "he's now ready to release this mulberry, which can at last be grown anywhere by anyone". The plant takes just weeks to bear fruit "which nearly everyone has heard of but comparatively few have eaten. This is largely because they are too soft to pick and transport so supermarkets have never been able to exploit this wonderful fruit." The mulberry is self pollinating, grows to 1.5m, fruits on both new and old wood, and produces fruit even in its first year.

Suttons managing director David Robinson says he could have sold many thousands of the plant, including more than 10,000 to one organisation. But he adds that none are available until September, despite some claims from retailers that they do have them. "People want it. We're now seeing what stocks can be made available," he says. If Suttons feels there will be too many for its own mail-order demand, it will allow some to be sold elsewhere, including possibly in garden centres.

View details of all the RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2017 finalists

Gamble on stock levels

Suttons initially "gambled" on high levels of stocks because "it always felt like a plant that is genuinely different", says Robinson. "We marketed it through social media, which can waste a lot of time and money, but this is one of these occasions when word got out and it sold out quickly."

He adds: "Plants have thrived through all four seasons in Devon and Yorkshire and it is reportedly fully hardy, although to be on the safe side we'd still recommend protecting any tender new growth from hard frosts in its earliest years.

"With the national mulberry collections being held in the Royal Gardens and the plant being named after Princess Charlotte, it feels appropriate for it to be launched by a company with a royal warrant and shown at Chelsea."

The runners up in this year's Chelsea plant of the year award were Salvia 'Crystal Blue' (Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants), Hibiscus rosa-sinensis Petit Orange (Thompson & Morgan) and Clematis 'Taiga' (Thorncroft Clematis).

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