All-America Selections have been winners for 85 years

February 16, 2017 | Doug Oster comments

For 85 years, plant breeders have been sending their new varieties to All-America Selections hoping to be chosen for the coveted title of AAS winner. It’s not easy to win, as the plants are grown side by side with two similar successful, known cultivars. Looking through the list of winners is a horticultural history lesson with varieties dating all the way back to the 1930’s that are still being grown today. Of course, gardening is like fashion with some plants fading away over the years.

'Midnight Snack' Cherry Tomato is a 2017 All-America Selection.

‘Midnight Snack’ Cherry Tomato is a 2017 All-America Selection.

Executive director Diane Blazek oversees the program which now judges edibles, ornamentals seeds (annuals), vegetative cuttings and perennials (three year trials).
“Only the highest scores get AAS awards,” she says, which means there could be 15 winners one year and 30 the next. There were 27 winners for 2017.

When the seeds or plants are sent to one of more than 80 different trial grounds, they are only marked with a code, so the judges don’t know their names or who bred them. Back in the day, after breeders were notified of a winner, it took 18 months until the public was informed. That’s changed as breeders want the latest winners on the market as soon as possible.
Most of this year’s winners can already be purchased online. Others will be available soon and a few might need to be put on next year’s list of new plants to try in the garden.

Blazek singled out a few of the new introductions. First is ‘Candle Fire’ okra. “This thing is so prolific, she says. “Even if you don’t harvest it, it’s so beautiful.”
The okra is so pretty it could even be used as a cut flower, she says. One judge noted that ‘Candle Fire’ okra was quite maintenance free to grow, except for the frequent harvesting. That’s a good problem to have when growing any vegetable.

'Antares' fennel was a 2017 All-America Selections winner.

‘Antares’ fennel was a 2017 All-America Selections winner.

'Mad Hatter' sweet pepper is a 2017 All-American Selection winner.

‘Mad Hatter’ sweet pepper is a 2017 All-American Selection winner. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections

‘Antares’ fennel easily produces a tasty bulb and has four other uses, including being a host plant for swallowtail butterflies, producing fennel seeds, fennel pollen and beautiful dark green fronds.
There’s been a lot of buzz around the ‘Chef’s Choice’ series of tomatoes, which have won over the past few years. There’s a green, orange and pink winner along with this year’s yellow selection.
“They are nice, big, meaty beefsteak tomatoes,” Blazek says. “Very prolific, they are a hybrid so they have disease resistance and more controlled growth.”
One of the most interesting types of tomatoes on the market today is the indigo series. These tomatoes are dark purple, filled with antioxidants and anthocyanins, which are good for us. The problem has been they aren’t always the tastiest as they need to be fully ripe for best flavor. That can be hard to determine in a yellowish and/or purple tomato. ‘Midnight Snack’ begins with glossy blackish purple fruit that ripens to red. It needs to be staked, and puts on lots of cherry-sized tomatoes in about 70 days from transplant. Judges heralded the flavor of ‘Midnight Snack’ over the two other comparable cultivars.
Blazek also loves ‘Mad Hatter’ pepper. “They are not fiery hot, they’re more of a subtle, sweet citrusy flavor with mild heat near the seeds. This is the one where if you want to be a snobby foodie you could really have a lot of fun with this one and show people your gardening and foodie expertise,” she says.

Canna 'South Pacific Scarlet' was an All-America Selection winner in 2013. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections

Canna ‘South Pacific Scarlet’ was an All-America Selection winner in 2013. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections

Denise Schreiber is greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks. She also oversees an All-America Selection Trial Garden in South Park. (Jasmine Goldband /Tribune-Review) (JLG FLOWERFEST 01.jpg:, goes with DEASY story intended for FOOD).

Denise Schreiber is greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks. She also oversees an All-America Selection Trial Garden in South Park.
(Jasmine Goldband /Tribune-Review)

On the fairgrounds at South Park, Denise Schreiber oversees four long AAS trial ground gardens. The greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks has been a judge since 2014, and many see her as the perfect person for the job due to her candor.
“You have to be scientific about it; you know me, there’s no filter on my mouth,” she says with a laugh. “If I don’t like it, I will say so.”
The gardens are technically open to the public, but since they are marked with only a code, there’s no way to know the specific variety of the plant. The gardens start to hit their stride in early summer and are located between buildings 4, 6, 8 and 10.
The seeds are sent to Schreiber and studied first for greenhouse performance like germination or if the seedlings are prone to insect or disease problems. After being planted outside they will be judged for many attributes such as vigor, flowering, overall health and more.
“You always like being surprised,” Schreiber says of judging. She loved a canna sown in April; it started blooming in July and flowered until frost. “ ‘South Pacific Scarlet’ is great and it just keep on going,” she says.
Once something becomes a winner, Schreiber will use the plants in containers around the county parks. “Our first big winner was dianthis ‘Jolt Pink.’ We were just over the moon with it,” Schreiber says. “The flower is like a mini bouquet.”
Besides trial grounds, there also are AAS Display Gardens where gardeners can see the plants growing in their own climate. Jaclyn Bruschi, a gardener for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, is in her fourth year of tending the display garden in Schenley Park.
“It’s really nice to talk to people and tell them about all these plants,” she says. Bruschi has lots of favorites she’s used over the years in the garden and continues to plant them. “I really like the ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ echinacea. It takes a while to get nice blooms, but it’s a really nice perennial.”

Angelonia ‘Serenita Pink,’ is an All-America Selections winner. It's easy to grow. This annual thrives in full sun, shrugs off the heat and is deer/rabbit resistant. Beautiful pink flowers with purple throats cover 12 inch spikes putting on a summer show in the garden.

Angelonia ‘Serenita Pink,’ is an All-America Selections winner. It’s easy to grow. This annual thrives in full sun, shrugs off the heat and is deer/rabbit resistant. Beautiful pink flowers with purple throats cover 12 inch spikes putting on a summer show in the garden.  Photo courtesy of All-America Selections

Jaclyn Bruschi is a gardener for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who oversees the All-America Display Garden in Schenley Park.

Jaclyn Bruschi is a gardener for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who oversees the All-America Display Garden in Schenley Park. Photo by Doug Oster Everybody Gardens

In the fall, she leaves the seed heads for the goldfinches to feast on. For Bruschi, these plants have to provide beauty and low maintenance too. That’s why zinnia ‘Profusion Double Cherry’ and ‘Salmon’ are the perfect plants for the full sun garden.
“You don’t have to deadhead them, they just keep blooming,” she says. “They never have a bad year and they attract a lot of pollinators.”
She also offers good advice for gardeners when deciding what to plant. “Don’t just rely on one plant,” she says. “It’s always nice to have a backup.” Bruschi also loves the way geranium ‘Pinto Premium White To Rose’ changes color as it matures. “It’s phenomenal,” she says. “It starts out white and fades to a rose color.”
Angelonia ‘Serenita’ is another flower she raves about. It’s happy in the heat of the summer, deer and rabbit resistant, doesn’t need deadheading and has beautiful pink blossoms with a dark purple throat. Bruschi not only loves the plants she grows but also enjoys the visitors to the park who appreciate her work.
“People walk by the garden all the time and say ‘thank you, this is so beautiful, this used to be a parking lot and now it’s this beautiful space we can come and eat lunch at.’ That would be the best part of my job.”

To see a list of AAS winners and find out where to get them go to All-America Selections.

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.

Tithonia 'Torch' (Mexican Sunflower) was a 1951 All-America Selection. It grows anywhere from six to 16 feet depending on conditions and is a great pollinator plant.

Tithonia ‘Torch’ (Mexican Sunflower) was a 1951 All-America Selection. It grows anywhere from six to 16 feet depending on conditions and is a great pollinator plant. Photo by Doug Oster Everybody Gardens

Doug’s recommendations
I grow lots of All-America Selections, some of them have been favorites for years and others were discovered more recently. Here’s a partial list of what I’m growing.
• Morning glory ‘Scarlett O’Hara,’ 1939 winner. I love morning glories. You know this one has to be good, because it’s stuck around in catalogs for a long time. Four-inch-deep red flowers cover vigorous tall vines that will bloom prolifically in average garden soil.
• Tithonia ‘Torch’ (Mexican sunflower), 1951 winner. One of the best pollinator plants in my garden, ‘Torch’ attracts butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more. The plants will grow from 6 to 16 feet depending on conditions and is filled with 3-inch orange blossoms. Easy to grow and will bloom until a hard freeze. One of my favorite all time plants.
• Beet ‘Ruby Queen,’ 1957 winner. These reliable growers with short tops have a beautiful, deep red interior color. The roots have a mild flavor with a butter texture. ‘Ruby Queen’ thrives in good compost, but will produce in average garden soil and under crowded conditions.
• Tomato ‘Celebrity,’ 1984 winner. Seems like this variety has been around a lot longer than 1984. The plant bears clusters of large tomatoes that are prized for their flavor. Even though it only gets 4 feet tall, the plant needs staked or caged. Exceptionally disease resistant and produces all season.
• Tomato ‘Juliet,’ 1999 winner. One of my favorite tomatoes, as the plants are covered with oblong tomatoes all summer long. They look like big grape tomatoes. The trick to getting the most out of them is letting them fully ripen. That’s when the flavor is superb.
• Cucumber ‘Diva,’ 2002 winner. This nearly seedless variety is prolific and early (58 days). Its all female flowers allow it to be grown under floating row covers to thwart cucumber beetles. Disease resistant and easy to grow.
• Impatiens ‘Bounce Pink Flame,’ 2015 winner. If you’re worried about impatiens downy mildew, this is the impatiens for you as it’s immune to the disease. It’s only available as a plant and even though it’s not an Impatiens walleriana (the popular bedding variety), it looks and acts very much like it.
• Impatiens ‘SunPatiens Spreading Shell Pink,’ 2015 winner. I’ve had great luck growing the entire ‘SunPatiens’ line. They are great bloomers, resistant to impatiens downy mildew and will bloom fine in the shade regardless of their name.
— Doug Oster