Grower helps plot next wave of award-winning flowers

A hummingbird sips nectar from a Salvia Hybrid Mesa Purple

A wide-eyed Todd Perkins elevated his voice to just below a
shout and pointed to a row of 3-foot-tall spiny, green stems
crowned with stark pink blooms roughly 50 yards away.
A wide-eyed Todd Perkins elevated his voice to just below a shout and pointed to a row of 3-foot-tall spiny, green stems crowned with stark pink blooms roughly 50 yards away.

“Those are mine! I bred those!” said Perkins, an award-winning flower breeder at Gilroy’s Syngenta Flowers company, located on Hecker Pass Highway. “And it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

The flowers are a unique breed of Cleome Sparkler Blush, whose beautiful, mad-scientist origins can be traced to Perkins’ mind. Watching his prized plants and others sway softly in a cool August breeze was enough to make him giddy.

“I love this business,” Perkins said. “I’m like a wind-up toy.”

He wasn’t alone in his excitement Wednesday afternoon, when approximately 20 judges from all over North America descended on Syngenta, formerly Goldsmith Seeds, Inc., to help pick this year’s All-America Selections, referred to by several officials as the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of the flower and plant world.

The winning entrants proudly don the selection stickers in catalogs and at some retail garden centers, said Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections.

Though Syngenta decided not to enter this year – the company has won seven times since 1998 – Perkins gave the visiting judges a crash course in the newest trials, which they will use to critique the “never-before-sold” flowers in later rounds before winners are announced in November, Blazek said.

“They come in excited,” Perkins said of the judges. “We create things they’ve never seen before.”

Syngenta doesn’t have a spot in the World Cup of flower picking this year, but the company is happy to serve as what amounts to a host site, Product Development Manager Mike Murgiano said. He said the entries were planted on Syngenta grounds because All-America Selections insists on testing entrants in a variety of climates in 40 locations in the U.S. and Canada.

“This climate is more like the south of France,” Murgiano said standing between rows of flowers Wednesday. “It also matches up to Mediterranean climates.”

The new flower breeds that can grow in just about any climate and likewise be mass produced within three years that become All-America Selections, Blazek said, though Perkins added there were additional guidelines.

“Sometimes you’ll see something that blows you away,” Perkins said. “You’re looking for something remarkable. You go, ‘Wow.'”

One-trick ponies need not apply.

“Doing it once is one thing. You’ve got to be able to do it on a commercial scale,” he said. “The award is so much more than people realize.”

Winning breeders who lack a three-year supply of seeds are held off the shelves until enough of the product is bred, Blazek said.

Swiss-based Syngenta purchased longtime Gilroy staple Goldsmith Seeds for $74 million in 2008. The company employs roughly 120 people at its Hecker Pass site, which spans 45 lush acres.

Keelan Pulliam, the company’s North American head of flowers professional, said Thursday Syngenta’s Hecker Pass site had been identified as “a center of excellence for flowers breeding.”

“I think the site has a long legacy as one of the premiere breeders. Our intent is to continue and invest in and control that site,” said Pulliam, who declined to comment on whether the facility had plans to expand.

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