How might Chelsea's plant of the year winner impact the garden centre market?

RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year - Sedum 'Atlantis' - image: HW
RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year - Sedum 'Atlantis' - image: HW

An unusual choice, Sedum 'Atlantis', entered by Suttons and displayed by the National Dahlia Collection, has won the RHS Chelsea Flower Show new plant award for 2019. Several plants on the longlist that on the surface have more commercial appeal did not reach optimum flower levels, while one or two contenders, such as Dryopteris 'Jurassic Gold', were not entered. 

However, the top three plants could sell more than one-million units between them, such is the power of the Chelsea effect. "Plants for our times" characteristics such as dwarfness, to suit small gardens, and drought-tolerance, for Britain's drier summers, emerged as big themes across shortlisted plants.

The decade-old award is judged by RHS plant committee members. The top three plants were favoured well above the opposition. Judge Tony Girard has backed the sedum, saying the plant is different and showy compared to usual sedums, while fellow judge Paul Hansord says the award-winner has "impact" and is "good for today's gardens".

He likes its tolerance of heat and cold, variegated foliage and butterfly-friendliness. The plant appears to tolerate wet as well as dry, adds Hansord. "With just drought-tolerance, one year that's good and one year it's not." He says the plant will look good on the garden centre bench too. 

Seiont Nurseries managing director Neil Alcock says the compactness of the sedum is an advantage for transportation and he has hundreds of cuttings ready to grow for ordering for early 2020. He adds that perennials did best again at the awards, probably because they are easier to get looking good in time for judging compared with shrubs and roses, while edibles failed to impress judges.

Some 39 varieties made the longlist and around 12 were deemed potential winners, though 20 made the shortlist (see box). Voting was 14 for the sedum in the first round, 11 for Digitalis x valinii 'Firebird' and seven for Agapanthus 'Fireworks'. In the second of round voting, 27 of the 75 RHS committee members voted for the sedum, 23 for the digitalis and 11 for the agapanthus.

Drought tolerance

Suttons managing director David Robinson says the sedum being drought-tolerant "makes a difference" and needed mentioning in his pitch on the plant to judges at Chelsea "because of last year". He adds: "Is there any coincidence, with the last five years having been the hottest on record and a global conversation taking place on climate change, that this year's winner is a timely example of a drought-tolerant plant?"

"In May 2018, sales were fantastic, but in June and July plants that should have sold well were tailing off. Our research showed customers were worried about plants surviving." The sedum also appeals because it gets covered in bees as it flowers, he says.

Suttons' Gavin Shaw says he now has to find more stocks because there are only a few thousand left and Suttons has all the plants in the UK. "I'm seeing how many we can get," he adds. "A lot are ordered already. Regardless of the win, it is such a good plant." Suttons buys Dutch plugs and grows them on.

On drought tolerance, Shaw says: "We've not tested 'how low can you go', but we know it has good drought resistance on the nursery. We've been keeping it dry to hold it back and it's kept going. It's so good in so many different climates. From a retailer point of view, the plant is excellent — so easy to transport and it holds its colour in low light. Because of the foliage, garden centres can start selling it early."

He says it has big potential for living walls and roofs and is a "photogenic plant", adding: "You can't take a bad picture of it because of the flowers and foliage. There's always something to look at."

Global potential

Sedum 'Atlantis' is available from Suttons only in the UK at present. Breeders' agent Peter van Rijssen of Plantipp suggests it could sell half-a-million worldwide, "or maybe even more", though stocks are unlikely to be in garden centres before 2020. Plantipp represented seven of the 20 plants shortlisted for the award and 12 of the 45 longlisted.

The plant's breeder is American Dave McKenzie of living roof/wall company Hortec, who found it as a sport. McKenzie has previously planted a 4ha roof garden for the Ford Motor Company and has created his own living roof system.

Sedum 'Atlantis' is the second plant Shaw has chosen as Chelsea plant of the year, following Morus 'Charlotte Russe' in 2017. There are "quite a few thousand" available this year in 9cm (£7.99) and two-litre pots (£9.99), and it has already been selling well. The sedum is set to be the most in-demand specimen in the UK as stocks could now quickly run out.

Second place went to UK-bred Digitalis x valinii 'Firebird' on the Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants stand at Chelsea. Breeders' agent Graham Spencer of Plants for Europe predicted 250,000 sales. The breeder is John Fielding. Farplants has sold 22,000 so far and has a few hundred left for this season. Horticulture Week experts tipped the plant from the longlist of 45. Some questioned the hardiness of the plant, though tests show it resists cold better than previous Chelsea best-in-show winner Digitalis 'Illumination Pink'.

Third place went to Agapanthus 'Fireworks', displayed on the Sparsholt College stand on behalf of Thompson & Morgan. The plant is also set to sell a six-figure number. The breeder is South African Andy de Wet and Plantipp is the agent. Fairweather's is also growing the plant. Plantipp's van Rijssen says 'Fireworks' was selected from 12,000 seedlings planted in 2008. It has received an Award of Garden Merit in new agapanthus trials. As well as being heat-resistant, it is also resistant to root rot.

SHORTLIST RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019: 

  • Osteospermum 'Purple Sun' — bred by Selecta One, displayed by Birmingham City Council
  • Rosa 'Eustacia Vye' — bred by David Austin
  • Rosa 'Gabriel Oak' — bred by David Austin
  • Streptocarpus 'Lemon Sorbet' — bred by Dibley's
  • Dianthus 'Cherry Burst' — from Whetman Pinks, displayed by Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants
  • Digitalis x valinii 'Firebird' — bred by John Fielding, displayed by Hardy's
  • Weigela 'Picobella Rosa' — bred by Bery Verhoef, shown by Hillier
  • Hosta 'Ruffled Pole Mouse' — bred by Jan van der Top, shown by Hogarth Hostas
  • Rhododendron 'Happydeendron Pushy Purple' — bred by Holger Hachmann, shown by Millais
  • Rhododendron 'Jessica de Rothschild' — bred by Edmund de Rothschild, shown by Millais
  • Gypsophilia cerastoides 'Pretty Maid' — bred by Fred Yates, shown by National Dahlia Collection
  • Sedum takesimense 'Atlantis' — bred by Dave MacKenzie, shown by National Dahlia Collection
  • Thymus 'Sparking Bright' — bred by David Nieberg, shown by Newlands Nursery
  • Paeonia 'All That Jazz' — bred by Don Smith, shown by Primrose Hall Peonies
  • Clematis 'Elodi' — bred by Poulsen/Raymond Evison
  • Agapanthus 'Fireworks' — bred by De Wet Plants, shown by Sparsholt College/Thompson & Morgan
  • Chlorophytum saundersiae 'Starlight' — bred by De Wet Plants, shown by Sparsholt College/Thompson & Morgan
  • Clematis Kokonoe — bred by Shigeaki Ochiai, shown by Sparsholt College/Thompson & Morgan
  • Ajuga tenorei 'Princess Nadia' — bred by J van Zoest, shown by Sparsholt College/Thompson & Morgan
  • Nepeta 'Neptune' — bred by Kees Jan Kraan, shown by Sparsholt College/Thompson & Morgan

PREVIOUS WINNERS RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year:

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