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A million Thanks! Million Bells (Calibrachoa) is one of the hottest annuals on the market today. It is hard to believe that they have been around for twenty years. Delilah Onofrey is director of Flower Power Marketing and supports Suntory Flowers' marketing efforts in North America. For 18 years she was an editor with Greenhouse Grower magazine, serving commercial flower growers.


Delilah Onofrey
Photographs Suntory


Can you remember the first time you discovered calibrachoa (pronounced Kal a braw koa´) as a colorful new annual for patio planters and hanging baskets? You probably even called the plants Million Bells. That’s because Million Bells were the very first calibrachoa series on the market. This exciting new plant category was created in 1993 by the breeders at Suntory Flowers in Japan.

The journey began more than 20 years ago when Suntory Flowers breeders left their laboratories and ventured out to find the most promising plants in their native wilderness environments all over the world. At that time, flowers were a new business direction for Suntory Holdings Co., a global beverage giant. The new breeding team’s mission was to create and commercialize completely new varieties for everyone to enjoy. With more than 200,000 kinds of plants, where would they begin?

Their first big introduction was Surfinia – the first vigorous, vegetative petunia that revolutionized the genus. Next came Million Bells calibrachoa – a completely new genus that looked similar to petunia but was distinctly different with a wide color range and higher flower count.

The two fathers of the Million Bells breeding are Dr. Yasuyuki Murakami and Dr. Kenichi Suzuki. Prior to working on flowers they were focused on breeding fruits and vegetables, including grapes, barley and yeast for Suntory’s whiskey, wine and beer. The biotechnology boom led to Suntory’s interest in flowers and new areas of breeding.

Calibrachoas were initially considered part of the petunia genus. While botanists knew about this group of plants, horticulturalists have overlooked them because they had smaller flowers and were poor producers of seed. “Common petunia was a hundred times more attractive for all breeders, except us,” Murakami and Suzuki said. “When Suntory started flower breeding, we were traveling a lot to not only find the best varieties to realize the commercialization of calibrachoa, but to find any opportunities to create a new category. Suntory’s mission is to bring new value to consumers. We felt the need to do something different than the competition.”

They traveled to North and South America to gather species. “One day, we were climbing up the desolate slope of the jagged mountains. Then in the distance, we found a plant with an amazing number of striking pink flowers. But the problem was the plant was growing at the edge of a huge cliff, 328 yards high,” the breeders recalled. “It seemed almost impossible to reach the plant unless we were ready to try free rock climbing for the first time in our life. However, the plant was powerful and attractive enough, which blew away our fear and finally made us decide to use a lifeline to reach it.”

Although this specimen was not useful to the breeding, Murakami and Suzuki crossed hundreds and thousands of plants and species until discovering the varieties that were the cornerstone to build the Million Bells breeding program. There were many challenges to overcome – aggressive growth, stretching stems, late flowering, flowers closing on cloudy days, long-day flowering requirements and root rots. The breeders also studied flower pigments to understand how they would be expressed in the plant.

The first two Million Bells varieties introduced were Upright blue and Upright Pink. The Million Bells line has since grown to include five classic trailing varieties, 14 mounding and four compact Bouquets across the color spectrum. Three new colors for 2013 include Wine, Tropical Delight and Bouquet Amethyst.

Reflecting on the success from the last 20 years, Murakami and Suzuki said, “To some extent, we had expected it, because we believed in the potential. However, the actual explosion was far bigger than we expected. Almost all the major annuals breeders have added calibrachoa to their line-up. When we started breeding work on Million Bells, no one heard about the name calibrachoa. Now people recognize this genus as Million Bells.”


Posted January 11, 2013

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Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners

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