Patented plants, such as this Endless Summer® Summer Crush® hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘BailmacFive’, PP 30,359), are protected by law from unauthorized propagation. Kylee Baumle/Paulding County Progress
Patented plants, such as this Endless Summer® Summer Crush® hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘BailmacFive’, PP 30,359), are protected by law from unauthorized propagation. Kylee Baumle/Paulding County Progress
Several years ago, I was the guest of Proven Winners at Spring Trials in California. This event is held every year for growers, breeders, garden center owners and media, to showcase new plants from the companies that supply them to us.

Locations are up and down the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco and attending it is kind of like a Disneyland dream vacation for gardeners. The companies put their best feet forward and the plants knock your socks off.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend Spring Trials twice, but that first trip was memorable in that it was the first time I’d ever been to California and I learned a whole lot about what it takes to bring a new plant to retail.

Whether a plant is grown from seed or division or tissue culture (cloning), there are a number of steps involved and a great deal of time (years) and expense spent doing it. As you can imagine, when a company is developing a new plant, the genetics are a well-guarded secret. There were areas of the trial locations that I was allowed to see, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos for this reason.

By the time I completed that first Spring Trials visit, I was in awe at what all has to happen in the life of a new plant introduction. I was left wondering how on earth we’re able to purchase these plants for such a low price. Never since have I questioned the cost of plants, even if it seems sometimes to be high. All the steps a particular plant takes before it comes to be sitting on that bench in the garden center very likely explains the price tag for it.

When a company puts so much time into the development of a plant, they often patent it. Patents protect the breeder and the company who brings it to market from another company duplicating it and diluting their profits.

What this means for us as backyard gardeners is that we can’t purposely propagate patented plants either. For example, the Hort Couture company is known for their fabulous fancy-edged Coleus plants in their Under the Sea® collection. Coleus are generally easy to propagate, with endless new plants able to be created from cuttings.

While it might be tempting to take cuttings, root them, and maybe sell them on a plant sale, that would be illegal to do. Technically, it’s illegal to make more plants this way for use in your own garden, although most companies would turn a blind eye towards the personal practice of doing this, mainly because in this instance, enforcing the rules is difficult, if not impossible.

But theft of intellectual property, which this falls under, is a big enough problem in the plant industry that a company exists solely for monitoring this practice. Plant Watch can be employed to keep an eye on things, or a company can do this in-house. Monrovia is one company that monitors their own.

I’ve seen people roll their eyes when they learn about the illegality of propagating patented plants, but put yourself in the place of those whose rights are being violated. Their livelihood is at stake. It’s no different than the pirating of music or movies. It denies the creator of compensation for the years (sometimes 10 or more!) and expense of bringing a new plant to market, and often the creator doesn’t see a dime for their efforts until the plant is on the market.

Patents eventually run out and it’s no different with plants. A plant patent expires after 20 years, but a patented name can be renewed and often is. This tends to protect a plant longer, because by then, the plant is known by their patented name.

The rules state that a plant whose patent has expired must be sold by its original cultivar name unless the patented name has been renewed. This is helpful to the creator of the patented plant because most people don’t know plants by their original name, only the patented one. For example, the first Endless Summer® hydrangea in the series has an original name of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bailmer’. Would you recognize it by this name?

Normally, upon discovery, a warning is given and the offender complies with the law. There are stiff fines if they don’t. Some violators claim they didn’t know, but that doesn’t negate the violation of the rules. Perhaps you didn’t know either. Now you do.

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