Breeders of pot chrysanthemums have for a long time aimed to optimise the task of the grower. By concentrating on ‘families’ of varieties the crop has been raised to a new level. Now it’s time to make a new step forward, says Elien Pieters, of Gediflora. Marketing and promotion – traditionally not the job of the grower – are getting more attention. Here there is still much scope for innovation.
The number of pot chrysanthemum breeders is straightforward: 11 nurseries in total in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France and the US. Gediflora, of Oostnieuwkerke, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, is market leader with about 60%. Two years ago Elien Pieters took over the nursery from her father. Actually at that point she wasn’t very interested in chrysanthemums; she had studied business sciences. But after one month she was excited.
She saw plenty of opportunities in sales and marketing. Her input brought the nursery into a new phase, just like when her father took over from his father. He brought breeding to a high international level. Breeding remains the core business but promotion and marketing will also get more attention in future.
Keep the green fingers
The nursery has 14 ha of open field (including the selection field) and 3 ha of greenhouses. It employs 31 full-time workers and in the peak season (rooting of cuttings) an additional 40 seasonal workers. Worldwide it sells 70 million cuttings (including licenses), of which 40 million are in Europe. The Netherlands is the largest market for cuttings, followed by Belgium and Germany in joint second place and France in third.
“Our nursery comprises three divisions,” says Pieters. “The R&D-department is involved with classical crossings and selection, breeding of mutations and carrying out projects with institutes. The second area is the propagation. We have partners in Brazil and Africa who produce the cuttings. The cutting are checked here in Belgium and then shipped to the client, rooted or unrooted. The third area is our own production. We do this purely to maintain our green fingers and to get feedback from retail. We then pass this information onto our customers. We make sure that our production does not cross paths with that of our clients.”
Breeding in families
Targeted breeding is difficult in chrysanthemums because the crop is hexaploid. In the past, the emphasis was on extending the season. Now that this has been achieved the emphasis today is on creating families. Other characteristics remain important for breeding she says. “We want the plant to have a nice ball shape without having to be disbudded, so no labour; also resistance to diseases, such as rust, is selected for at an early stage. Sometimes nice varieties are rejected for this reason. Furthermore, the flexibility of the canopy is an important feature. It has to slide well into the sleeve and then unfold again well when at the consumer. In addition we work with varieties that require none or very little growth inhibitor.”
Breeding in ‘families’ has clearly lifted the crop to a higher level. A family is actually a variety that is available in different colours. For example, the Jasoda-family is worldwide number one and is available in colours dark orange, pink, yellow, mauve, red and white. “Producing families gives our clients the highest return. Because they are the same variety you can apply the same treatment to the different colours: the same time for shading; the same kind of inhibition; the same planning. However, there is a disadvantage to growing in families: you can’t suddenly change the colour,” she says.
Very strong genetics
Clear trends are visible in the consumer market: Pink tints are the favourite at the beginning of the season (August), autumn colours at the end (November). But breeding is a long-term affair so it’s difficult to respond quickly to consumer trends. “In the long run breeders have to follow their own line. But during the introduction of new varieties you can purposefully place the fashionable colours in the market. Actually you should be able to fulfil all the trends from your breeding program,” says Pieters. In addition, the leading Belgian breeder wants to reach more market segments by producing different varieties, such as large flowers, new colours and diverse flower types.
In the past, yellow, with 60% of the sales was the main colour. That is now 40%. In traditional catholic countries, such as Spain, white-flowered plants still play an important role in the cemetery at the beginning of November. “Tradition is okay, but we can’t live purely on tradition,” she says. “We have a comfortable starting position with very strong genetics; the challenge now is the marketing.”
This begs the fundamental question whether or not it is the role of the breeder to promote and position the end product in the market. In order to create ideas she meets with, among others, the retailers. This led to the promotion line, Buddies: special varieties that are wrapped in a matching-coloured sleeve, which also gives tips on care and use. A booklet is included to highlight the plant’s role in creating atmosphere both on a patio as well as inside. “The aim is to use these promotional materials as part of the partnership between our clients and their customers,” she explains.
Belgian Mum No. 1 was developed as a promotional eye catcher for selected customers: This is unfiltered Belgian beer that contains an extract of chrysanthemum flower petals. “For the retail market we especially created a duo-presentation: the MumBeer and a glass in stylish black packaging plus a pot chrysanthemum in a black sleeve.”
The duo-presentation is a striking way to create a positive and surprising feeling towards the pot chrysanthemum. But it is relatively unexplored territory, says Pieters. “We still have a long way to go regarding the promotion of the end product. It is very labour intensive; it costs a lot of money and you don’t see any direct return. It’s about keeping alive the enthusiasm for the product. And there is still much to do in terms of experience. But it is very nice to create new inspiring concepts.”
Key criteria for breeders of pot chrysanthemums are: extending the season; disease resistance; flexibility of the canopy; and building up ‘families’. The latter has raised the crop to a higher level. With the appointment of Elien Pieters to the board of a Belgian breeder company, more attention is being paid to marketing and promotion.
Text: Tijs Kierkels. Photos: Wilma Slegers