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New Geraniums Become Top Sellers


A new breed of geranium will be hitting the market this spring, and already it has been declared a winner.

Ranked No. 2 in potted-plant sales behind poinsettias and outsold in the bedding-plant market only by impatiens, geraniums are a universal favorite. With this new entry on the scene, there is no telling to what heights geraniums will climb.

Members of this new class, products of the complex process of mating parents of different species, are being called floribunda geraniums. They were developed by Bodger Seed Ltd. of El Monte, a commercial seed producer famed for its work with marigolds, and they offer vigorous bloom and tremendous heat resistance.

With one stroke, the company, in its first attempt at breeding geraniums, originated this wholly new plant type and walked away the only winner--and a triple one at that--in the first competition held by a newly established trade organization.

The new group, called FloraStar, was formed to recognize excellence in the potted-plant industry and to encourage buying interest in its products. It is organized along the lines of All-America Selections, which promotes advancement in the quality of seed-grown flowers and vegetables, and of All-America Rose Selections, which performs a similar function in roses.

The group began organizing four or more years ago, said spokesman Ted Marston of Seattle, the group's initiator and first president. It has been set up to test new varieties of greenhouse-grown potted-flower and foliage plants to prove whether they are superior to similar varieties already on the market. If a new Rigor begonia, say, showed that it had acquired the ability to resist attack by mildew--the scourge of Rigor begonias--or a cyclamen was found to bloom longer or earlier than its nearest counterparts, or a gerbera flowered more profusely than was customary, such plants would be high contenders in the race for championship.

Each spring and fall, FloraStar will choose a new crop of winners to coincide with these two seasons of greatest buyer interest. In the first of the trials, the victor was the Bodger geranium trio of Grace, Judy and Marilyn (all members of a series Bodger calls A Star Is Born), announced in September. They were featured as hanging baskets, but they're also suited to growing in window boxes and patio planters as well as in the ground. They will make their debut in consumer markets this spring.

FloraStar accepts 20 contestants in each season's trial. This year nine entries were received, including, besides the geraniums, varieties of impatiens and lisianthus. It was a respectable showing for the first effort, Marston says.

To make sure that winning plants turn in the same high performance whether they are raised in Pago Pago or Timbuktu, their behavior is examined in widely ranging climates. Testing is done by 20 authorized commercial growers and horticultural departments of state universities.

Entries, Marston said, are rated against the plant over which they are purported to be an improvement to see if they do indeed excel. For any of the four newly developed kalanchoes and the one streptocarpus, for example, now competing in the second FloraStar trials to win, it must demonstrate superiority in character to its nearest variety already on the market.

The qualities judged include earliness, tidiness (petal and leaf-holding ability), color and form of flowers and foliage, uniformity, commercial value or salability, shippability, fragrance, ease of culture, consumer preference and growth habits.

FloraStar contests are open to professionals and amateurs alike throughout the world.

Bodger Seeds is a family-owned company that will celebrate its 100th birthday in 1990, Kim Bodger, the firm's chief executive officer, said in a phone interview. The company started breeding geraniums because it saw a unfilled need for hanging-basket-type geraniums. Ivy geraniums that are available and whose trailing habits suit such a display fizzle out in the heat--and that made them poor subjects for East Coast markets and other places where sweltering summers are the norm.

Bodger said the exact identities of the parents of the new geranium are a trade secret. But he did reveal that the new plants are a cross between the common old-fashioned geranium and other species. Since the parents derive from different species, the term "interspecific cross" is used to describe the mechanism by which the new floribunda-type geraniums were bred.

Traits common to the three Bodger winners, and a fourth entry, Brigette--which did not win an award but nevertheless will be on the market with her sisters--are tremendous vigor, production and longevity of flowers, a full and bushy growth habit and an uncanny resistance to heat.

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