The Chicago Botanic Garden, in collaboration with the Morton Arboretum and the Ornamental Grower’s Association, will introduce three new plants – the Forever Pink Phlox, the Beijing Gold Peking Tree Lilac and the Crescendo Sugar Maple – at the Mid-American Horticultural Show in mid-January.
“All of the breeding that I do is in the ground [at the Botanic Garden], so I’m truly selecting plants that will work in the ground in northern Illinois,” said Dr. Jim Ault, Director of Ornamental Plant Research, who developed the Forever Pink Phlox.
Ault has his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in botany, but has been doing horticulture for 25 years and “hasn’t looked back once.” He’s been at the Chicago Botanic Garden for 18 years.
Years of testing and work go into the development of a new plant. First, two parent plants must be selected, chosen for their size, their flower color and their fragrance, among other qualifications. In the case of the Forever Pink Phlox, this happened in 2007.
“In my mind, its part science and part art,” Ault said. “As a breeder, I have a good understanding of how these traits will be inherited – for example, if I cross a pink and a white flower, I will most likely get light pink. But at the same time, when it comes to breeding garden plants, aesthetics is what its all about, so I have to paint a mental image.”
After a cross between the two parent plants is created, the horticulturist lets it mature for at least two years, to see what the full plant looks like. They will then plant and mature the offspring of that creation. If those successfully reach maturity, Ault will propagate a couple hundred more plants and send them out to around 130 nurseries licensed with the Chicago Botanic Garden in the country, which then test the plants for themselves. If it all goes well, they could be ready to sell to the public within a year.
The Forever Pink Phlox is a perennial plant with beautiful pink blooms - while still remaining hearty enough for whatever weather conditions northern Illinois can throw its way.
“I am so pleased at this plant,” Ault said. “It truly is, of the hybrids that I’ve put out to date, the best garden plant. I have introduced some very exciting plants but this one I’d put in my garden and I’d know that it has long legs- meaning it will be around for a long time. There’s excellent flower coverage, its reaping bloom in October or November, it has very clean foliage and zero disease issues that I’ve seen. The stems remain upright and, despite last summer’s heat and draught, it performed right through summer.”
The Chicagoland Grows Plant Introduction Program – a nonprofit corporation of the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Morton Arboretum and the Ornamental Growers Association of Northern Illinois – have also developed the Bejing Gold Peking Tree Lilac and the Crescendo Sugar Maple, both of which were developed at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.
Those interested in learning more about the Forever Pink Phlox, as well as other new plants in the works, should visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s evaluation gardens, which are open to the public.
“Some people come once every month,” Ault said. “There’s always something interesting!”