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         Flower power today means colorful, low-maintenance blooming plants of all kinds that support a healthy environment and make our world ever more beautiful. Hybridizers are putting flowers powerfully to work.

         "The whole world of breeding is more sophisticated" than it used to be, says Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau, sister organizations that test new plants and promote top performers. Gardeners are looking for beautiful flowers they can rely on, but they also want to attract pollinators and conserve resources -- including time and energy. Modern hybridizers are hip, Blazek says.

         New plants in garden shops and in the glossy pages of the latest plant and seed catalogs are hardy and adaptable. Annual flowers are heat- and drought-tolerant, and they produce lots of long-lasting flowers. Begonias introduced in the past few years have transformed consumers' experience with the genus, Blazek says. Large, colorful Viking begonias make big statements all by themselves in pots, and they hold their own with ease in flower beds. Lantanas aren't what they used to be, either. New sterile varieties produce lots of nectar for butterflies and other pollinators, but do not go to seed. Because the plants don't expend energy producing seeds, they bloom almost continuously through summer's heat, without pampering.

         This year, the National Garden Bureau's "Year of" program, which promotes stellar garden performers, selected hydrangeas as their first featured shrub. "They're everywhere now, and they are better than ever," Blazek says. "They are longer-blooming (and) easy to care for, they have bigger flower heads, and they're great for sun or shade."

         Interest in hydrangeas has skyrocketed in the past few years as hybridizers have introduced new mop-top varieties that bloom reliably even after the coldest winters. New introductions among the panicle hydrangeas, prized for their late-summer and fall flowers, bloom earlier than old-time varieties, and their cone-shaped flower clusters keep their form and freshness for weeks. Hybridizers have also increased the selection of native oak-leaf and smooth hydrangeas, and they've introduced compact varieties just right for small gardens or containers.

         Among perennial flowers, such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and day lilies, hybridizers have put efforts into increased hardiness, reliability and flower production. These days, gardeners are looking for plants that are hardy even in places where winter temperatures may drop to -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

         Russian sage Denim 'n Lace is a good example -- it's a sun-loving, drought-tolerant perennial hardy in bone-chilling Zone 4 winters, but equally at home in the mild winters of the south. The Perennial Plant Association's list of perennials of the year is a roll-call of such tough, colorful garden performers. Past winners include Millennium, a showy and floriferous summer-blooming allium; flashy, bright orange butterfly milkweed, which attracts butterflies and other pollinators; and the graceful fall-blooming anemone Honorine Jobert, which has snow-white flowers.

         Interest in kitchen gardening is driving demand for hard-working flowers, too. Pollinators and other beneficial insects are "the heroes of the vegetable garden," says Lisa Mason Ziegler, a flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia, and the author of Vegetables Love Flowers. Zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers and other annual flowers, in particular, attract pollinators, which also visit the vegetable plants' blossoms. A row of flowers increases the garden's population of beneficial insects, which help control the bad bugs, Ziegler says. Planting annual and perennial flowers in and around a vegetable garden also improves the harvest.

         Of all the flowers Ziegler grows on her flower farm, zinnias are perhaps the most popular both as pollinator plants and as cut flowers. Their voluptuous blooms are colorful landing pads for butterflies all summer long, and picking flowers for bouquets encourages even more flowers. Children love their bright colors, of course, but adults can't resist them, either. New hybrids broaden the appeal: These include zinnias with sophisticated bicolored blooms, festive stripes and designer colors, such as salmon, lime and champagne.

         The benefits of modern hybrids aren't all reserved for the home gardener. Hybridizers also benefit when new introductions are more resistant to pests and diseases and thrive without pampering. These tough new plants help growers conserve energy and resources because they require less-intensive greenhouse management. To be sure, breeders and growers want gardeners to have show-stopping, colorful landscapes, but flower power has already kicked in long before you ever see a bloom.

         SOURCES:

         -- The National Garden Bureau (ngb.org) and All-America Selections (all-americaselections.org) are sister organizations that promote proven garden performers. This year, the National Garden Bureau's "Year of" program features lavender, lantana, hydrangea, iris and corn. All-America Selections tests new plants in trial gardens across the country and recognizes the best-performing selections every year. The program was established in 1933, and many AAS winners have become garden classics. The AAS winners for 2020 include a coneflower (Sombrero Baja Burgundy), nasturtium (Tip Top Rose) and rudbeckia (American Gold Rush), among others.

-- Since 1990, the Perennial Plant Association (perennialplant.org) has named an outstanding perennial as its plant of the year every year. Featured plants are versatile, adaptable and pest- and disease-resistant; they hold their own in the garden even when they're not blooming.

-- Vegetables Love Flowers, by Lisa Mason Ziegler (Cool Springs Press), promotes companion planting for beauty and productivity. Her book includes plans for kitchen gardens full of flowers to attract pollinators and beneficial insects, and to increase the yield of vegetable crops.

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