With the endless variety of plants on the market, and new ones developed each year, how can a landscaper stay on top of the latest introductions that will be ideal for client gardens? Start with a search at All-America Selections (AAS), the oldest, independent testing organization of flower and edible varieties in North America.
A non-profit, AAS was started in 1932 as a reaction to the new “Garden Club” movement of the 1920s and 30s. W. Ray Hasting, president of the Southern Seedsmen’s Association of Atlanta, GA, proposed the idea as a way for home gardeners to learn which new plant varieties were “truly” improved, as opposed to just being advertised that way.
Separating Wheat From Chaff
Today, AAS conducts confidential and impartial trials each year of new, not-yet-introduced annuals, ornamentals, perennials, and vegetables throughout North America. Plants come from a variety of retailers, like Bonnie, Burpee, and more. Every autumn, AAS accepts the new entries, which are then grown and tested in more than 50 widespread locations. Existing varieties are grown side-by-side to the new entries for one-to-one comparisons.
Over 80+ trial judges—including horticulture professionals at universities, public gardens, extension offices, seed companies, breeding companies, retailers and commercial growers—look for significantly improved qualities. These qualities include: earliness to bloom or harvest; disease or pest tolerance; novel colors or flavors; novel flower forms; total yield; length of flowering or harvest; and overall performance. Only the best trial performers, those that are superior to their comparisons, are declared AAS Winners. Entries that performed particularly well in certain regions are named AAS Regional Winners.
Plants that have been deemed AAS Winners can be found at a network of nearly 200 dedicated AAS Display Gardens, 55 of which have participated for 25 years or longer. One such location, Deep Cut Gardens in Middletown, NJ (part of the Monmouth County Park System), has been an AAS Display Garden since 1990. “These are the plants that are the best of the best,” commented Donna Baginski, a horticulturist with Deep Cut for over 20 years, in an earlier interview for the Parks System.
Finding Exceptional Qualities
So, what are the winners landscapers should seek out for client-wowing plantings in 2021?
Celosia Kelos® Candela Pink. 2021 AAS Flower Winner. One AAS Judge called this entry an “Energizer Bunny” that just kept blooming! Across the board, the judges loved the bright pink blooms that rose above the foliage, almost like a tall, tapered candle. Unique, showy plumes of pink
flowers kept their color all season long and the judges agree this is a perfect filler plant to add height and interest to a combination container planting (shown right). But it’s also useful in mass plantings, borders, and general garden use. Another added bonus: it works as a dried flower. Available in plant form only.
Leucanthemum Sweet Daisy Birdy. 2021 AAS Perennial Winner. Sweet Daisy™ Birdy Leucanthemum is a beautiful perennial with robust, long-lasting blooms and carefree longevity in gardens down to zone 3. In AAS Trials, it demonstrated excellent cold and heat tolerance and maintained a tidy, sturdy habit over the three-year trial. The cheery flowers are large and pure white in color, appearing earlier in the season than comparison varieties. The 5″ reflexed daisy blooms feature small feathery petals around golden yellow button centers. Leucanthemums, also known as Shasta Daisies, can be used for cut flowers, and also provide food and habitat for pollinators. A medium-height plant, it requires very little maintenance other than deadheading if desired. Available in plant form only.
Zinnia Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor. 2021 AAS Flower Winner. Multiple judges were wowed by this beautiful new bicolor addition to the popular Profusion series of zinnias—earning it a Gold Medal! This gorgeous zinnia starts the season with a bold vibrant red center ring surrounded by golden-yellow outer petals. As the season progresses, the aging flowers morph into soft, beautiful shades of apricot, salmon, and dusty rose to bring a range of color to the garden—all from one variety. Trial garden visitors during the summer noted how well the plant continued to bloom new flowers over old so there was never a decline in beauty. Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor is also the recipient of the Fleuroselect Gold Medal award for performance in European trials.
Other recent perennial winners relatively new to the market include:
Echinacea Sombrero® Baja Burgundy. 2020 AAS Herbaceous Perennial Winner. Sombrero® Baja Burgundy adds a bold accent to gardens with its vibrant, deep violet-red blossoms. The color is without equal among coneflowers and is perfect for cut flowers. After being trialed over three tough winters, AAS Judges noted this standout’s hardiness, sturdy branching, and floriferous blooming habit. Birds and pollinators also flock to this deer-resistant selection which blooms from mid-summer until first frost. Other noteworthy Echinacea Winners include: Cheyenne Spirit, which produces a range of colors, and PowWow Wild Berry, a vivid, deep-rose purple bloom.
Rudbeckia x American Gold Rush. 2020 AAS Herbaceous Perennial Winner. With bright, golden-yellow flowers with black centers and arched petals, this compact, upright domed-shaped introduction has narrow 2″ wide hairy foliage bred for its resistance to Septoria leaf spot. This hybrid shows no signs of the fungus even in wet, humid conditions. Blooming from July to September, with some color up until frost, this cultivar has smaller foliage and shorter height compared to other rudbeckia varieties. Incredibly easy to grow, and pollinators love it. Destined to be the new rudbeckia staple for gardens and landscapes.
Another AAS perennial winner worth mentioning is Gaillardia Arizona Apricot. With blooms lighter in color than traditional gaillardia, it has yellow edges that deepen to a rich apricot center. Free-flowering, it blooms heavily the first year, covering the plant with bright blooms that look great in mass. This long-flowering perennial is Hardy in USDA Zones 2-10, relatively maintenance free, and drought-tolerant once established. Other Gaillardia AAS winners include: Mesa Yellow F1; ‘Sundance’ Bicolor; and Gaillardia Arizona Sun.
To learn more about AAS winners a searchable database can be found here. Type in “marigold,” for instance, and a list of all winners since AAS’s inception will appear. To determine which retailer carries the plant you desire, a chart is provided at all-americaselections.org/buy-winners/.
Menapace is managing editor of Turf. An avid gardener, she has worked as a Park naturalist, floral designer, and has been a green industry writer for nearly 30 years.
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