How to describe my experience last week (March 28th – April 2nd) touring the California Spring Trials (CAST) for the first time with friend and co-hort, garden writer Marianne Willburn and her (now our) friend, Andrea Gasper?  Maybe it was big. Yes, it was very big. 

Left to right, Marianne Willburn, me (I’m from the Midwest), and Andrea Gasper, rocking orange Dummen Orange sunglasses.

A group learning about several new introductions at Dummen Orange.

Thousands of miles traveling by air, 624 miles by car winding down California from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Ten tour stops in four days. About 35 plant breeding and marketing companies. Throw in two botanical gardens, scenery out the wazoo,  a Dodgers game in a luxury box, my first Thai curry, and, my first In & Out burgers, and damn right it was big. It was huge! 


After the first two days, which were colder and rainier than Ohio, California got around to being its old self. California poppies in bloom as we drove through the Carmel Valley.

Marianne getting a photo of Dodecathion in bloom. “Pronounce it as if you were French,” I said to her, “and it were your lover, Dodee Catheon(e).” She tossed her head back, her hair afire in the sunlight, and cackled maniacally.  

Of course, as a plant nerd, I was eager to see the plants but one of my ulterior motives was to better understand how the annuals business is structured. I’ve been involved in annuals trialing for twelve years and, frankly, I have been and might still be (but to a lesser extent) ignorant of who all the players are and how the pieces fit together.  

The condensed version as I now know it? It is a big, byzantine world. There are a handful of huge, worldwide corporations and then a bunch of smaller companies. All are competing for their piece of a finite pie through better breeding and better marketing. But, to hedge their bets, there is also a lot of jockeying for partnerships and licensing deals between them. Caught in the gravity of all this are all the known Universe’s brokerage companies, garden centers, big box stores, and more. It seems messy, but the end result, honestly, is a surprisingly wide assortment of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful plants in the world, all of which are destined to brighten the lives of people all over the globe.    

Of course we expected to see plenty of petunias and calibrachoas, and, yep, we sure did. But, the new and fabulous colors somehow manage to keep such old and popular favorites fresh. Here is a beautiful combination at Westhoff. Indeed, combination “recipes” were a theme that we saw at many of the stops.

Less common plants were also on display, such as Colocasia ‘Frydek’ at Green Trade and this beautiful Mandevilla from Suntory, SUN PARASOL GIANT Peach Sunrise. 

It’s amazing it all somehow works. This industry offers a very perishable product. A product that is aimed at the moving target of public taste. A product that can take a decade or more to breed, produce, and introduce. And, ultimately, a product that is, for many end users, an impulse purchase using discretionary funds. But the industry has been around a long, long time. Uninterrupted really. Impulse buys and discretionary spending, I suppose, but people seem to really want and need beautiful plants in their lives. 

Cyclamen from Morel on display at Ball. 

A new series of Armeria from Ball’s Darwin Perennials. Darwin produces vegetatively grown perennials. Kieft, another Ball company, produces seed grown perennials.


See Marianne’s first blog on CAST here.