All-America Selections: 80-Year Seed History for Home Gardeners

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Viola wittrockiana 'Dwarf-Swiss Giants'

Viola wittrockiana ‘Dwarf-Swiss Giants’ was in the first group of All-America Selections Winners and remains an heirloom pansy today. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Gardeners called them war gardens during World War I, relief gardens during the Great Depression and Victory Gardens (in the United States) between 1940 and 1945. Those who loved growing plants, like my parents and others who experienced years of turmoil, looked forward to making new gardens.

But, plant lovers faced a quandary. Crops of seed catalogs touting newer and newer plants flooded their mailboxes. The new seed ideas tugged at their green thumbs like honey, enticing bears – but would these new seeds produce as they promised?

Home gardeners before 1932 had little objective plant testing to turn to when they looked at the newest seeds. As much as they loved trying new plants, home gardeners had scant funds to waste on seeds with unproven production. Even the most dedicated plant aficionados had little reliable information on which to base their choices.

Home Gardeners Have All-America Selections

The All-America Selections (AAS) organization celebrated its 80th birthday in 2012, with a nod to Ray Hastings, who founded the All-America Selections in 1932. Today, AAS stands as the oldest international seed and plant testing organization in North America.

Petunia 'Red Picotee'

Petunia x hybrida ‘Red Picottee’ has 3-inch blooms, a winner in 1983. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Hastings’ originally intended to offer the home gardener reliable proof on which varieties demonstrated the best performance in a garden.

“That is just as true today because garden performance is the top characteristic that we ask our judges to evaluate,” Diane Blazek, Executive Director of All-America Selections, told Chris Eirschele of Decoded Past.

The AAS announced thirty new varieties in 1933, and tested new varieties and announced winners every year since without fail. The AAS winning varieties fall into four categories: bedding plant, flower, vegetable, and cool-season bedding plant.

Cucumber Straight 1935

Gurney’s Mail-order Seed and Plant Company sold the Cucumber Straight 8, which the AAS named a winner in 1935. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

In the vegetable group, taste retains equal weight with other details, if not more. Over the years the commercial growers asked for more performance details about the AAS winners. In the long run, seed viability and a strong plant, described in a grower’s lexicon as “better branching,” has proved to be important for home gardeners.

Plant Winners and Gold Medal Awards

Plant winners in 1933 consisted of Larkspur ‘Blue Bell’, Verbena ‘Beauty of Oxford’, Lupine ‘Giant King Mixed’, Marigold ‘Guinea Gold’, Nasturtium ‘Golden Gleam’, Pansy ‘ Dwarf Swiss Giants’, the tomato plant ‘Pritchard Red’ and a watermelon ‘Graystone.’

AAS also names Gold Medal Awards each year, reserving the awards for plants that prove a breakthrough in breeding, which according to AAS standards, “results in a significant achievement when compared with varieties already on the market and that would be in the same AAS category.”

Oakview Station of Ferry Morse Seed Company July 1941

Plant trialing judges dressed more formally at the Oakview Station of Ferry Morse Seed Company in Rochester, Michigan in July, 1941. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Zinnia ‘Profusion White’ in 2001 earned its status as a modern-day winner of the Gold Medal Award for its lengthy bloom time, growing from seed to bloom in 60-65 days. The Nasturtium, Marigold and Pritchard tomato AAS winners also became Gold Medal Award winners in 1933, along with Asgrow Stringless Green Pod Snap Beans, Honey Rock Cantaloupe, and Annual Mixed Canterbury Bell. Stalwart gardeners follow AAS for the food and annual plant winners.

Although the AAS named a perennial lupine a winner in 1933, they avoided trialing of perennials or naming winners until recently. Blazek explains, “Our trials are set up as a one season trial so that does not lend itself to trialing perennials for longevity, only for their first season show.” Until garden designers and plant professionals started using more perennials as annuals, the demand to see perennials just in the first year did not show.

“Breeders stepped up to a demand and started asking us to test their varieties for first year performance resulting in the perennials you see as recent AAS winners: Sparkle White Gaura, Cheyenne Spirit Echinacea and Arabesque Red Penstemon, ” added Blazek.

Cosmos 'Sensation'

Cosmos ‘Sensation’ was a 1936 AAS Winner, an organic flower popular even today. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Twenty-first Century Changes at All-America Selections

AAS continues to make changes in the 21st century while staying true to its original purpose for home gardeners. The AAS first evaluated regional varieties to the All-America Selections Winners in 2013, Blazek said: “For years, we only recognized the varieties that performed well all over North America. But as we all know, North America has a huge number of varying climate zones and some varieties are naturally better suited to growing in certain areas.”

Trialing plants in Litchfield, Michigan

In the trialing fields of C. Raker & Sons in Litchfield, Michigan, in 2010 for judging Angelonia and Echinacea plants. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Organically-grown plants and vegetatively propagated varieties are two more changes soon to help home gardeners. “The plant industry has changed dramatically over the past 5-10-20 years and it’s important that AAS stay current,” stressed Blazek. “The great news is that 2014 is our first year for trialing vegetative ornamentals.”

Blazek goes on, “F1 hybrids can be grown organically; we’ve just never asked that question about availability before. If the answer is yes, that an AAS Winner is available as an organic seed, then we will list it as such. We haven’t had any yet, but I will say keep an eye and ear out because in the next 12-18 months we do hope to introduce some new AAS winners that are available as organic seed.”

Home Gardeners Drive Oldest Trialing Gardens for New Plant Testing

A trial ground is one of the most important components of the All-America Selections system.

Each site must have a professional horticulturist who works at the site; entries placed next to control plants for comparison; and have a location at a university, public garden, commercial greenhouse, or breeding station.

The oldest trial gardens still participating in the modern-day are university sites like University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, since 1966, and University of Connecticut, since 1962.

A mail-order seed company, Park Seed, began participating in trialing in 1973 and continues to do so.

The Canadian Devonian Botanic Garden at the University of Alberta has actively conducted trials of seeds since 1977.

AAS 1940s logo

All-America Selections logo is usually seen in a red, white and blue, in the 1940s it was black and white. Copyright image courtesy of All-America Selections, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

All-America Selections: Reliable Plant Choices

Generations of home gardeners look for the distinctive AAS logo with its patriotic red, white and blue shield while pulling packets from seed racks or picking out packs of transplants off nursery benches.

The All-America Selections winners remain reliable plant choices and counted on by gardeners to produce flowers or food in abundance in backyards across North America.

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© Copyright 2014 Chris Eirschele, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


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