Origanum "Bellissimo" and Things Horticultural

Origanum Bellissimo It's depressingly autumnal here in Hobart, after a week of ups and downs, the weather Gods look to have brought the curtain down on what could only be described as a summer when you're not actually having one. It was the pits. So to cheer myself up a tad I thought I'd tell you all about my plant, "Bellissimo". OK, I can hear what you are saying: shameless advertising pitch,  blatant abuse of my loyal and trusting readership, gone over to dark side and joined the hard sell crew ... . Well, no, it's just that it's my first ever mass market "product" so I beg a little indulgence, and thought that some of you might be interested in the journey such plants make to jostle for a place alongside all the other "hopefuls" on the shelves of your local garden centre.

Let me start by saying "Bellissimo" is a cracker of a plant. It has all the virtues of its tribe: heat, drought and cold resistant, impervious to pests and diseases, a prodigious bloomer with strikingly beautiful flowers,  an exceptionally long flowering period and an excellent subject for dried flower arrangements .

But this is not the end of the story.  It's clearly superior to the two "benchmark" varieties in the trade, "Kent Beauty" and " Barbara Tingay", bearing the richest plum flowers that barely blemish or fade. It gives rise to a prodigious number of blooms with a neat pagoda shape virtually smothering the plant creating a very individual look.

Origanum Kent Beauty Origanum Barbara Tingay

So how did this seedling get from my garden into a garden centre near you?

It arose from a random cross between the two cultivars just previously mentioned and was probably growing in my rock garden for two years before I noticed it. Only then did I start looking at it critically, comparing it to its two parents and other siblings that had taken root nearby. The next year I contacted a mate of mine, Marcus Ryan, who at that stage worked for David Glenn at Lambley Nursery. I told him I had a really good one and would they like to trial it with the aim of selling it exclusively through the nursery and we would cut some deal.

I  heard nothing for a year, then David rang and said  that its a really good plant and suggested, to avoid copyright problems and to enhance potential overseas market penetration, that it would be better not to sell it in Australia at this stage and to get Plants Management Australia (PMA) involved. PMA are agents that will take the plant to a wider market if they consider it good enough. So Chris Sargeant, the owner and manager of PMA gets on board. Another year of trials by growers in Australia and at the end of that he says, "Yep, let’s put PBR (Plant Breeders Rights) on it and get cracking .... "

Origanum Bellissimo in Full Flower

Another year went by ... one in which Chris and his company built up sufficient stock in readiness for overseas trialling, developed a portfolio of promotional material and presented this to potential growers in Europe, Japan, New Zealand and the USA.

By the following year, my new origanum, its name now "Bellissimo" is being trialled by growers in all of the important markets overseas. It's finally  ready to be released in Australasia in the coming summer and in Japan in the northern spring. There are discussions on royalties, contacts, etc, but things have stalled in the USA, and as a consequence, in the UK. Something about climatic zones: "Kent Beauty" was successfully sold as a durable perennial into zone 5 markets so to be profitable "Bellissimo" must follow suit. Last season it was planted late,  the north east of the United States experienced one of the coldest winters on record, and the plant failed. Patents have been renewed, hopes are high for a better result next time around ... fingers are firmly crossed.

How do I feel about all of this?

Well,  it's exciting, .... and there's the chance for some REAL money ... but I feel something is missing, or maybe more precisely,  something has been lost.

When John Watson took a few plants of Origanum rotundifolium out of Turkey the Convention on Biological Diversity did not exist. And I say hallelujah to that because if it had of, he would have been treated as a criminal, locked up, made pay a hefty fine and the plants confiscated ... and probably destroyed.

Origanum rotundifolium Origanum Hopeful Variegated Hybrid

When Origanum rotundifolium was given to Elizabeth Strangman at Washfield Nursery, to more or less look after, my bet is that this was done on a handshake. And when "Kent Beauty" arose in her nursery there was no beady-eyed intellectual property lawyer from Wisley leaning over her shoulder. There was no Plant Breeders Rights either but everything appeared to tick along okay, with those involved making "a bob or two".

Origanum "Kent Beauty" was the first O. rotundifolium hybrid to appear on the gardening scene and it was exciting times. Dan Magnus (Woodbridge Nursery) and I traded it from Elizabeth Strangman for a root of the Tasmanian hellebore, "Betty Ranicar" (one of the very first double white hellebore). Dan Magnus carried "Betty Ranicar" to England in his backpack on his way to Africa to make drums and he picked up "Kent Beauty" three months later on his way back. You couldn't do that these days without very deep pockets. Neither of us made any money out of "Kent Beauty", it was before its time, but it was kind of satisfying to beat the "Big Boys" ... and I did get "Bellissimo"

Origanum Bellissimo Close Up

At the time we were just  “kids” finding our way working Dan's stall at Salamanca Market in Hobart. On one occasion a bloke walked up and introduced himself as a plant wholesaler from Melbourne and said, "You guys have some very interesting plants but you're never going to make any money out of them". We were somewhat taken aback. He handed us his business card and as he left he called out, almost as an afterthought, "Get in touch and cash in". We never did.

Back then there were dozens of small specialist mail order nurseries and some pretty good local ones propagating their own plants. These days you could count the former on two hands ... and the latter? Well they're an endangered species ...



hi Marcus I really enjoyed your article and completely understand the dilemma you are talking about. There are many people who have taken a 'small is beautiful' approach to life (and business) including myself, but it is not easy -often a balancing-or is it juggling ?-act!I think there will always be small plant growers trying to eke a living-for example Killecrankie at Winkleigh is a recent start up and older people retiring out of the field. the recent proliferation of farmers' markets is also cause for optimism. I recently found a small specialist plant grower who lives only a few kms away from my home of 30 years in Launceston- (Raithby's) and i was impressed by the quality and range of their plants. salamanca Market is also a good outlet for people like us who want a different lifestyle-Ive been buying plants from Dan Magnus for years-so I probably met you in the early days there! Certainly the odds are stacked against the individual in our society-but we also have some freedoms that were not common in days gone by! Personally I would rather buy my plants from small growers-but I understand why you would want to patent an origanum to make some money-last year I bought just such a hellebore from a German company franchising there brand into Australia! I hope this finds you well! regards Kerry

Hi Kerry,

Thanks for making a comment.  I guess what I was trying to suggest is that there is a loss of innocence about the whole process. I would contend that gardeners DONT have the same choices they had 15 years ago.  It might not seem like it but losing many small nurseries means losing choice. Its the way of the world. Supermarkets have gained control and in our case the plant supply networks have gained control. They are aided and abetted by the Biosecurity "industry" whose regulatory compliance favours them hugely (and unfairly) over smaller operators. I'd love to hear from someone in WA or Tasmania on this issue. 

Nursery work is hard and if people can't make a decent living they will leave it and do something else. And that's what has happened. I wouldn't recommend anyone seriously start up a full scale business these days. 

Cheers,  M


PS Going OK

Marcus, Your sense of loss is palpable and it is a sad reflection on society that so little value is placed on the individual striving to share with others something they truly love. Even in a city like Melbourne one can almost count on one's fingers the nurseries that specialize in interesting, beautiful, diverse plant species. How can they, and make a reasonable living at the same time? What a loss it would be for all of us if you wonderful, interesting, people found it all too hard and gave up. I look forward to the various lists and catalogues every season. Even now that they are mostly on line rather than by post. It seems desperately sad that the forces driving change come down to business interests. Not unfamiliar though. It can only happen because people are willing to be satisfied by looking to others to tell them what they want and, really I guess, by complacency. George Orwell really had it in a nutshell. Bravo with Bellissimo. I love the origanums and they really do thrive in sunny spots.

Hi Jacqui, 

Thanks for your comments.  It's a difficult situation.  Consumers,  well, consumer,  and when the "products" are placed in areas of convenience,  they are brightly packaged,  they are aggressively advertised through gardening media  and they are the ONLY ones that make it through the bureaucratic forcefield called biosecurity, you pretty much have a fate accompli. 

It costs a WA gardener $60 to import one packet of seed or plant from a small specialist. That's hardly fair or just but if people dont make pollies feel their hot breath of anger on their neck .... well ... you are right about George Orwell.

Thank God for nurseries like Woodbridge and Lambley's. At least there one can find a range of plants outside the main steam.  So many gardeners enquire about plants that they see in glossy international magazines.  They have no idea of the cost and rigmarole involved in getting these plants here. To give you an example: I used to import small amounts of valuable material like snowdrops and cyclamen.  First came CITES (Convention on Biodiversity) where the exporter and the importer are both paying bureaucrats to write on an official document, what we all know,  ie, the plants are nursery progagated. Then comes an increase from $12 to $30 for 15 minutes of "processing" time by federal quarantine "services",  then an increase from $300 per annum to $2500 per half annum for JUST the registration of a premises to quarantine plants ..... you can see where all this is going ?

Cheers, Marcus

I understand your ambivalence, Marcus. There is a loss of innocence - a loss of the simple pleasure of watching a special plant grow & bloom. There are so many "agencies" looking to cash in on your passion. I've bought many gems from you over the years & they continue to give me great pleasure. I hope you make some "real money" from Bellissimo - you've carried the torch for so long. The rot set in with people like Don Burke, with his fake good bloke persona & grating mispronunciations. Keep up the good work!

Dear Alan,


Thanks for your comments.  I hate the way that the culture of gardening has been taken over by celebrities. Instead of telling our own stories we are offered shopping lists and blah from people who have appropriated the script.

I do hope us gardeners aren't losing or sense of ourselves. I barely see anyone at garden club meetings these days but thank God some people blog,  maybe that's the new community. 

Cheers, Marcus