There are a few cultural conundrums out there in gardening which I wonder if I will ever get to the bottom of. As someone who has recently gotten into dabbling in a little home-breeding with rare begonia species, here is one that perpetually fascinates me, even if merely mentioning is likely to get me cancelled: why are so many new plant cultivars so hideous?
If you have flicked through any major gardening catalogue recently, you will know what I mean, especially when it comes to bedding plants. Cultivars with ever-more fluorescent hues, often with jarring colour breaks, where highlighter-pink juts up against Day-Glo acid green. Breeders will often layer up these mutations, too, with ruffled petals, dramatically variegated leaves and flowers so huge the poor plants can barely hold them up. Short of spraying them in glitter and dunking them in gold paint, there is very little else you could do to a plant to make it more dazzling.
Now, I am fully aware of how much of a terrible horticultural snob this makes me, and also of the incredible level of breeding ingenuity and dedication that is needed to achieve this level of tackiness. However, my question – personal taste aside – is whether these cultivars are any good for horticulture. I absolutely recognise the importance of having a huge range of plant options to help support the widest diversity of gardening styles, but how many people do these Barbara-Cartland-meets-Drag-Race varieties really appeal to? Are they created this way because the aesthetic barometer that breeders work to – as with many cultural aspects in horticulture – is a few decades out of date? After all, plant breeding is a notoriously slow process. These varieties would make perfect sense in an era when crocheted loo-roll covers or chintzy potpourri were commonplace in interior design. But they are totally out of step with really every current trend in fashion, graphic design, architecture and interiors.
Is it because these are simply the most common genetic quirks that come up when plant breeders are searching for novel traits? Variegation, colour breaks and ruffled petals are indeed some of the most common mutations that occur, for example, when plant breeders try to induce them using things such as gamma radiation. So is it more about the function of the characteristics that are available to play with, rather than the aesthetic goal they are actively working towards? Or is it just the thirst for novelty? If all you are searching for is something that stands out as visually different in a sea of thousands of identical plants on a breeding bench, maybe that starts to take precedence over something that actually looks good. Who knows?
It’s so depressing to see such a diverse range of plants, from begonias and fuchsias to petunias, that look so impossibly elegant, exotic and, above all, different from each other in the wild, all being turned into the same frilly, marshmallowy, pompoms that are virtually interchangeable. They aren’t just in horrible taste, they all look the flipping same. Am I alone in wondering this? Or have a I just become one of the terribly opinionated gardening snobs I have always tried my best to avoid?