Todd Perkins, Syngenta Flowers Senior Breeder, views pansies differently than most. With more than 25 years of experience in breeding, he understands the demanding journey pansies take in order to make it into gardens around the world.
When Perkins started breeding more than 25 years ago, pansies were large and gangly, with big flowers, bad habits, and flower stems as long as eight inches. After spending a decade breeding and improving violas, Perkins transitioned to breeding pansies and initially had some serious doubts about the plant.
“Pansies were not as good as violas,” he said. “Because of the way they were developed, pansies picked up a lot of bad habits and made a lot of compromises in order to have big flowers. They were developed to enhance the flower size and colors but didn’t have the same type of quality plant build that violas had.”
However, having made dramatic improvements to violas during his time as a viola breeder, Perkins doubled down his efforts on pansy breeding and set his sights on creating a better extra-large flower pansy – which had even larger flowers and thus bigger compromises than standard pansies. Perkins took to the drawing board to make an extra-large flower pansy that would be optimal for mechanized growing and for mass market sales. However, disenchanted with compromised pansy genetics, Perkins went against his instincts and did something unusual. Instead of trying to create a mega-pansy, Perkins was going to make a mega-viola – a hybrid extra-large flower pansy built on the chassis of a hybrid viola.
“I bred viola into the extra-large flower pansy, which was totally counter intuitive, because you are taking something huge – a plant with huge foliage and a big flower – and you are crossing it into this tiny flower.” Perkins said. “But it works. You can get the cross off and you can build it back into a full sized plant.”
This allowed Perkins to create an extra-large flower pansy that had better plant build and branching as well as uniformity across the series, causing it to excel in mass market growing conditions.
“We needed a rapid rate of development, we needed something that could develop more flowers and sustain them in really challenging conditions. That is something that a hybrid can offer.”
“You are asking so much from this material; it has to withstand horrible conditions, the kind of conditions that would keep someone from buying it. I am still floored by how well it does.”— Todd Perkins, Syngenta Flowers Senior Breeder
In his years of breeding, after his mega-viola innovation, the market and growing conditions for pansies have morphed. Today’s breeding now requires breeders to take the global market into account, now that international markets are more connected. Today, Perkins continues to breed innovations that cater to an international audience, withstand the challenges of spring and fall growing, and remain flexible to consumer and grower trends.
For the international market, Perkins not only has to create premium quality pansies that meet uniformity, germination, and shipping standards for mass market production, he also has to meet the niche needs of an international customer base.
“The color needs tend to differ regionally, for example, there might be a cultural or religious significance of a color in an international market, like Europe or Asia,” he said. “However, globally we have identified a group of colors that represent the bulk of our sales and those are the foundation on which we build everything else. We make those core colors as excellent as possible and complement them with the endless number of secondary colors to enhance the series to meet niche regional trends.”
Pansy sales target two very different seasons with very different challenges. Perkins is faced with developing pansies that can withstand summer and winter growing conditions in order to be sold in the fall and spring.
“The way we do this is to build a lot of vigor into the plant’s tops and root systems,” Perkins said. “These hybrid pansies have uniformity from seed to flower and give growers a level of vigor that enables them to grow through winter climate and darkness for spring sales and also grow through the summer’s declining day length and night temperatures for fall sales.”
As the industry becomes more mechanized, pansies have to be predictable, uniform, and withstand the rigorous requirements of highly scheduled production timelines for mass market retail sales.
“At the grower, [the pansy] has to germinate extremely uniformly. It’s got to have very well matched transitional timing, it all has to burst into emergence at the same time, and it all has to be ready for transplant at the same moment, and flowering has to happen within a very narrow window,” Perkins said. “These are inputs in a manufacturing process; everything has to work predictably and in sync.”
In regions like Northern Europe, which have a very brief window for spring pansy sales, Syngenta pansies are bred to stay salable despite unpredictable weather and imperfect retail conditions.
“In Northern Europe, the entire retail window is about four weeks. It comes in, it is sold, and at the end of four weeks they have to flush the houses to make room for spring annuals,” Perkins said. “It is an intense period of time where retailers have to move tens of millions of violas and pansies or they truly will dump it.” Perkins said. “It has to resist bad conditions during this time because if it is not salable that week, it will not be salable at all. But that’s the reality of commercial breeding. It isn’t what you think. And pansies take the brunt of it because it is truly global product.”