Over the course of my career in the green industry, I have become “friendly” with a diverse assortment of landscape plants. Often, I’ve wondered how the plants got their names. For example, how did Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ come to be called dwarf Korean lilac? After all, a plant that grows to be at least 8 feet high and wide can hardly be considered a dwarf. And then there is Lonicera xylosteum, European fly honeysuckle. What’s up with that? I have used Lonicera xylosteum ‘Emerald Mound’ on occasion, but never have I mentioned to a client that it is also known as “European fly honeysuckle.”
This brings me to the heart of my story about Amelanchier ‘Cole’s Select’ and how this cultivar’s name came to be in the nursery industry. In the mid-1970s, my firm opened its garden center, and our intent was to feature well-known landscape plants along with newer, improved varieties – or cultivars, as they came to be known. Thus, whenever a new edition of a wholesale nursery catalog arrived, I read through the pages, seeking that new plant that would be a welcome addition to any landscape. We became very reliant on several wholesale suppliers, such as Monrovia, Mount Arbor, J. Frank Schmidt and especially the Cole Nursery Co. of Circleville, Ohio. One of the things I liked most about Cole was the fact that they introduced many new trees to the nursery industry, and they were a first-class operation: good quality, good grading, reasonable pricing. We bought primarily bare root trees and shrubs from Cole, including Imperial, Skyline and Sunburst honeylocust, all of which were Cole’s introductions. Snowdrift, Red Jewel and White Cascade crabapples were some of my favorites. And, of course, Cole had introduced Rhamnus frangula ‘Columnaris’, or tallhedge buckthorn. Everybody has a bad hair day once in a while.
As my business grew, sales reps from other nurseries would call on us, some extolling their low prices, some describing why their plants were better than someone else’s, and some who were actually plantsmen. These were folks who had been involved in other facets of the industry and had insight and opinions to share. It was this latter group for whom I gained the greatest respect, and I looked forward to visits from Clint Sowards, Jan Bosman and Bosh Bruening.
Bosh Bruening operated a garden center somewhere in Missouri, and also represented Sherman Nursery of Charles City, Iowa. I always found myself involved in an interesting conversation when Bosh visited. He frequently asked my opinions of new plant varieties.
One spring, we bought some bare root Amelanchier canadensis plants from Sherman, and the plants we received were not really what I had expected. I was accustomed to receiving beautiful, full and vigorous Amelanchier from Cole, but Cole had sold out early this particular season, so I ordered from Sherman. On Bosh’s next visit, I mentioned my displeasure with the Amelanchier we had received. Bosh inspected the plants, agreeing that they were not what they should have been, and he wrote a credit memo. Then he asked, “What would you like to see Sherman growing that we don’t currently produce?” So, I showed him the Amelanchier × grandiflora plants we had received from Cole and potted the year before. These were truly nice plants, heavily branched and vigorous. Bosh suggested that, even though there was quite difference between Amelanchier canadensis and × grandiflora, the plants we had grown on were exceptional and worth pursuing. He said he would talk to Sherman’s propagator to see if he might be interested in getting some budwood from my plants from Cole.
Around mid-November, I received a phone call from Steve McCullogh, the propagator at Sherman Nurseries, asking if I would be willing to send him some branch tips from our Amelanchier × grandiflora so he could attempt propagation by a new (at that time) method called “tissue culture.”
I agreed and sent about 20 branch tips, each about 8 inches long. Several months passed before I received another phone call from Steve. He explained that his culture media had not been the right mix and that he wanted to start over from square one, so would I please send him more branch tips? I obliged and mailed another batch of budwood off to Iowa.
Read More: Guide to Plant Myths and Legends
The plot thickens
Another unusual circumstance had occurred during this time. Cole Nursery Company had become the target of a corporate takeover and had new owners. And to make matters even more complicated, the operation had been brutalized by a vicious hailstorm, so severe that the new owners had decided to auction off the nursery, including all the plants it produced. Thus, there would be no further source of the Amelanchier × grandiflora from Cole that I was so enamored with.
For months, I heard nothing about the fate of my budwood. I assumed that no news was not good news, so I lost track of the Amelanchier propagation project. Then, one day, I received a phone call from a gentleman named Joe Blue who worked for Briggs Nursery in Olympia, Wash. He told me that Steve McCullogh had left Sherman and had been hired by Briggs to manage the company’s tissue culture lab. Joe told me that Steve had brought several plants with him from the Sherman lab, including the Amelanchier × grandiflora plants that were tissue cultured from the budwood I had sent him. Joe said that the Briggs lab had produced a generous crop of extremely vigorous liners, and they wanted to send some of those plants to me. They also wanted me to name the plant!
Who makes the call?
Wow! Visions of Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Georgei’ flashed through my mind for a moment, but I had not really done anything other than to observe what I considered to be a superior variety and had snipped and mailed a few branches of it to someone who figured out how to reproduce it via tissue culture.
Once my ego settled down and I came to my senses, I told Joe that I really was not the appropriate person to name this plant, and suggested that Briggs should contact someone from the now defunct Cole operation and allow them to name it. I mentioned Bill Collins, Ralph Shugert and Ned Rader, all of whom were astute plantsmen as well as former Cole employees. Surely one of these guys should have the honor of selecting a persuasive name.
However, Joe Blue was a man on a mission; his job was to get a name for this plant, a name that might compete with ‘Cumulus’ or ‘Autumn Brilliance’, both of which were then becoming recognized in the trade.
Read more: Why Plant Names Matter
In the end, it was referred to – by me – as Cole’s Selection of Amelanchier × grandiflora. It isn’t difficult to figure out how it came to be known as ‘Cole’s Select’. Be that as it may, this is a superior plant with good foliage, superb flowers and small dark red fruits that look like miniature apples. The fall color of the foliage is a bonfire of oranges and reds and is simply stunning against a blue October sky.
When the situation calls for a small flowering tree, consider Cole’s Select serviceberry for its exceptional flower and fall color. Is it better than ‘Autumn Brilliance’? Maybe. Is it the same as ‘Autumn Brilliance’? Only the CSI labs of the horticulture world may be able to match the DNA and answer that question definitively. But, based on my 35 years of experience, I can assure that Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Cole’s Select’ is a fine landscape plant, and I encourage you to give it a try.
George Brenn is owner of Four Seasons Landscaping Nursery Inc., a retail garden center, nursery and landscape design/build firm in Valparaiso, Ind. Since 2004, he has chaired the Indiana Accredited Horticulturist Committee, and in 2008, he received the Landscape & Nursery Achievement Award from the Indiana Nursery and Landscape Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.