When the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year award began in 2010, people found it difficult to believe that it had not been launched earlier.
Plants for Europe owner Graham Spencer likens it to the Eurovision Song Contest. The winners from previous years have been as diverse as those in the song contest, with a shrub, houseplant, mass-market commercial plant and one with just 200 in existence winning in the past five years.
All RHS plant committee members who attend judging at Chelsea can vote, which is probably why the results are so varied. Plant committee chairs and RHS curators choose a shortlist of 20 from 40-plus entries.
Some 100 judges voted this year, with Hydrangea macrophylla 'Miss Saori' ('H20-2'), bred by Ryoji Irie in Japan and exhibited by Hillier, emerging as the winner.
Pitch to judges
Javado is growing the plant and UK representative Chris Campbell made a 90-second pitch to the judges. "Plant of the Year is now the most important launchpad for new plants to the public," he says. "For the commercial world, it's the HTA National Plant Show, which we will be at this June."
Campbell and Dutch colleagues launched another Irie hydrangea, 'Love', at the HTA show in 2013. He wants to "repay the loyalty of loyal Javado customers", particularly Hillier, by offering them the plant first when it is widely available, in its tens of thousands, in 2015.
Taking second place was Iris 'Domino Noir' from Cayeux Iris, while Gerbera Garvinea Sweet Glow (Garvinea Sweet Series) from the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company took third place - with just one vote in it.
While those plants can ride on the back of Chelsea success, those further back in the field can do well too.
Breeders' agent Spencer is behind three new lavenders launched at Chelsea by Downderry and one mega-plant, Eryngium 'Neptune's Gold' bred by Seiont's Neil Alcock, grown by Lovania for The Garden Centre Group (TGCG) and Garden Centre Plants (to smaller garden centres) and sold mail order by Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants (the exhibitor at Chelsea), TGCG and Coblands (to landscapers and designers).
As well as the new plant display and Hardy's stand, Paul Hervey-Brookes' Brand Alley show garden also featured the plant at Chelsea to ensure that it had multiple chances to be noticed.
Spencer says he is the plate spinner who gets all the elements together, including tissue culture breeders, to make the plant a success whether it wins or loses. The plant is in vitro with Vitro Westland and Fitzgerald Nurseries from 2015. "We've really gone to town with the eryngium," he adds. "It's a great story - a very distinctive plant."
He points out that the first golden-leaved sea holly will be a success regardless of the Plant of the Year prize at the show. Positive publicity has already led to enquiries from Australia, Canada, the USA and the continent - and not just from the media but from growers too.
It will be displayed at Plantarium in August, the National Plant Show in June by Lovania, Salon du Vegetal in 2015 and Green is Life in Warsaw, Poland. There are low tens of thousands available for 2014, which Spencer says will not be enough. TGCG has 10,000 launching next week.
Spencer is working with an unnamed British grower and breeder on a 2017 Chelsea launch for which he says 20,000 plants is a "minimum" for it to be a success. Anemone 'Wild Swan' only had a couple of hundred available when it won Plant of the Year in 2011, making the launch "unsuccessful", according to Spencer.
He insists that the promotion behind 'Neptune's Gold' justifies its £14-£15 retail price. Breeder Neil Alcock is an eryngium fan. He hoed up the colour break in his garden at home and potted it on.
Alcock showed it to Spencer, who he describes as an "up and coming breeders' agent", not yet too big to lose attention to detail. Alcock established that the plant had reliable production and left it to Spencer to bring it to the market. The Chelsea launch brings "great exposure" but he adds that future launches will help sales too, including by Seiont at the Four Oaks Trade Show in September.
Alcock maintains that keeping plant breeders' rights varieties exclusive for too long rarely works and he is keen for everyone to have access to the eryngium.
Coblands sales manager Lewis Normand, covering the landscape and designer sales of the plant, says: "Competitions like Plant of the Year help to make sense of the myriad options that present themselves to growers each year. From my perspective, more competitions of this magnitude across the year would benefit the UK plant range and really challenge the seasonal significance of the plants we buy.
"The HTA plant fair show is building in strength nicely, with many excellent entries on display last year, but the message has to be seen by end consumers and so televised shows like Chelsea and Hampton Court especially are of great industry value in promoting new material that will definitely then go on to be asked for by all plant buyers.
The already buoyant sales of the superb Geranium 'Rozanne' increased significantly with the Plant of the Centenary award it achieved last year with the RHS."
Garden Inspirations manager Mike Easom says Chelsea gave a 24 per cent uplift on the previous week in 2013 at his former employer Buckingham Nurseries. Plant sales "rocket" but you have to have the right plant on offer, he explains. Geranium 'Rozanne' is in short supply but the Plant of the Year label does have a "huge impact" on sales, he adds.
"It's a shame that the RHS doesn't have a selection of plants rather than just one winner - maybe a tree, a shrub, herbaceous and an alpine," he suggests. "That would help trade and extend the offer."
For winning plants, sales can be huge. Thompson & Morgan new product development manager Michael Perry says the digitalis that won in 2012 has now sold more than 200,000 plants.
"Plant of the Year is an excellent initiative that keeps the gardening world buzzing," he adds. "It highlights the fact that new plants are constantly being developed and how they're important for keeping gardens interesting - and also for improving gardening thanks to advances in the genetics."
RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year
2010: Streptocarpus 'Harlequin Blue' (exhibitor/breeder: Dibley's)
2011: Anemone 'Wild Swan' (exhibitor: Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants; breeder: Elizabeth MacGregor)
2012: Digitalis 'Illumination Pink' (exhibitor/breeder: Thompson & Morgan)
2013: Mahonia 'Soft Caress' (exhibitor: Javado UK; breeder: Van Son & Koot)
2013: Plant of the Centenary Geranium 'Rozanne' (exhibitor/breeder: Blooms of Bressingham)
2014: Hydrangea macrophylla 'Miss Saori' (exhibitor: Hillier; breeder: Ryoji Irie)