How it all started …
In the late 1980’s my parents travelled to New Zealand visiting gardens and nurseries. On their travels they visited a tissue culture laboratory where they were encouraged them to order 2 new Agapanthus that were a breeding breakthrough- they were fragrant. Whilst we were not growing Agapanthus at the time my father who ran the nursery thought this was a brilliant marketing opportunity and so ordered test plants of ‘Fragrant Glen’ and ‘Fragrant Avon’.
Young plants in agar were added to the next shipment and 3 years later we were presented with the first flowers. To our disappointment there was not a whiff of scent to the flowers, even in full sun or inside a warm greenhouse.
Breeding developments in Agapanthus had not seen many new cultivars developed for the Garden Centre market and through our membership of Plantnet UK a group of nurseries that worked together to develop and market new plants, we decided to launch the 2 varieties anyway but renamed ‘Glenavon’ and Snowcloud’. When these plants flowered they sold quickly on impulse, however the crop flowered erratically with some plants not producing flowers for 3 years after potting. Large amounts of wasted time and plants meant that they had a short life in the promotional calendars of our customers. In the meantime they had proved themselves as free flowering, hardy evergreen forms that performed well in the garden.
At this time most of the Agapanthus in production were grown from seed such as Headbourne Hybrids, providing flower colour variation which growers wanted to avoid, or division which resulted in hand potting and variable success with establishment. Many of the named clonal varieties that were widely available were from open ground production in Holland and were by-products of the cut flower industry and therefore too tall for modern gardens, let alone cc trolleys.
What these 2 varieties opened our eyes to was the demand for improved forms of Agapanthus that flowered quickly and shorter. My father subsequently visited Dr Richard (Dick) Fulcher who had a specialist Agapanthus nursery and National Collection in Devon where he was breeding for flower colour and form. As well as developing some exciting new colour breaks Dick had started his own tissue culture laboratory and along with it a technical understanding of how to introduce new cultivars into culture to encourage them to produce flowers from a young age.
Dick had identified the opportunity for dark blue flowered forms that were hardy-his presence at retails shows talking to customers had highlighted the preference for the traditional dark blue but with it a fear that Agapanthus were tropical and not hardy in the UK. His ‘Northern Star’ introduced in 2007 set a new standard in flower size with large reflexed stripped petals, deep purple basal stem colour and increased hardiness.
As Fairweather’s interest grew in Agapanthus we started to work with other breeders including Ken Rigney who lives in Southampton but had been brought up in Durban, South Africa the home of Agapanthus. On holiday visits back home he collected Agapanthus seed which he brought back to the UK to breed from. Ken bred the first bicolour selection ‘Enigma’ and since has continued to develop new forms such as ‘Snow Pixie’ and ‘Southern Cross’. More recently the demands of the modern market have brought Ken’s focus to extending the flowering season for growers and retailers and his forms ‘Jacaranda’, ‘Bridal Bouquet’ and ‘Sweet Surprise’ were all selected because they produce flowers early in the season.
All Fairweather’s Agapanthus are produced from tissue culture which provides uniformity, vigour and a quicker production time from young plant to flowering. Our development work has led us to grow our sales through expanding our market into Europe with Agapanthus export sales now accounting for more than 15% of turnover.
The greatest opportunities, however lie ahead with the quest for totally new flower colours, a race that has breeders across the globe striving for the big breakthrough.