What Makes an "All-American" (Flower or Vegetable)?

With the United States hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and the media and sports world filled with talk about "All-Americans" and "Olympic medal hopefuls", I thought now would be a good time to talk about the All Americans in the horticulture, rather than sports, world.

Like the talented athletes competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, plant breeders hope their new flower and vegetable varieties have what it takes to be selected as an All America Selection. The road to this goal is almost as grueling as the "Road to Atlanta." Advantages to being an "All-America Selections Winner" is the publicity and media attention, advertising, and of course, the increased sales.

Before discussing how a variety becomes an award-winner, let's look at the organization that makes the selections. All-America Selections was the first organization to establish national trial grounds for testing new flowers and vegetables grown from seed. When the idea for All-America Selections was conceived in 1932, there were only a few trial grounds around the country, all at seed company locations. Introducing a new variety required extensive promotional programs, therefore some seed companies were reluctant to produce new varieties. Since testing was usually limited to one geographic area, performance in other regions was often unknown. There was no standard nor were there rules for evaluating "new" varieties.

In 1932, Ray Hastings was president of the Southern Seedsman's Association. He proposed a national network of trial grounds where new flower and vegetable varieties would be tried in various climates and judged by skilled, impartial judges. With small donations from the Southern Seedsmen's Trade Association, All America Selections was begun and 20 trial grounds were established.

Since 1933, All America Selections judges have been evaluating new varieties grown from seed in trials all across North America. All-America Selections (AAS) is a non-profit, educational organization with three primary purposes:

  1. To encourage breeders to develop new varieties for improved quality and performance; and
  2. To provide home gardeners with new flowers and vegetable varieties which have won the All-America Selections award based on proven performance.
  3. Assist garden communicators with informative press releases and photography of the AAS winners.

The Trials

Seed companies and private plant breeders submit seeds, descriptions and photographs of each entry to AAS headquarters in Downers Grove, Illinois. The AAS office gives each entry a coded number, to ensure confidentiality of the breeder and impartiality of the judges. A committee of experts chooses a similar variety, already on the market, to compare with the entry throughout the growing season.

The trials are conducted each year and the new cultivars are evaluated for one year. There are 31 designated flower trial grounds and 27 vegetable trial grounds throughout the United States and Canada. The AAS judges are representatives from the seed industry, universities, and botanical gardens. The judges all serve on a volunteer basis and their respective organizations donate the garden space and labor at no cost, with AAS supplying the entry and comparison seed.

Only new, previously unsold varieties can be entered in the trials. Seeds are sent to a central office and distributed to the trial judges under a code number. Each judge evaluates the varieties strictly on their performance in that particular trial garden.

The judge at each trial garden looks for new, improved qualities, such as new colors, flavors (for vegetables), flower forms, disease resistance and overall performance. At the end of the growing season, the AAS judge scores each entry. The judges, collectively, decided which, if any, entries have proven to be superior to the plants already available to gardeners. Those entries with the highest average score are introduced as AAS Winners. Some years there are both flowers and vegetables receiving awards, however, the past couple years, only flowers have been designated

AAS Winners

AAS Winners are selected a few years in advance of the year they are introduced and released so that enough seed can be produced and available for the high demand.

Over the years, home gardeners have benefitted from AAS winners through varieties with greater disease resistance, earlier bloom or yield, uniformity, new and improved flower colors, and tastier vegetables. Although most AAS winners do grow well in Iowa, I suggest trying the new releases on a small scale first to see how they perform in your garden.

While you are on vacation or traveling around the Midwest this summer, you may want to visit one of the AAS Trial Grounds:

PanAmerican Seed Company
728 Town Rd
West Chicago, IL 60185
Boerner Botanical Gardens
58S. 92nd Street
Hales Corners, WI 53130
University of Illinois
Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden
1900 S. Lincoln Ave
Urbana, IL 61801
Mc Crory Gardens, SDSU
6th Street and 20th Ave
Brookings, SD 57007

There are several AAS Display Gardens in Iowa and the Midwest which display the 1996 AAS winners several previous winners. AAS Display gardens in Iowa are:

Reiman Gardens
Iowa State University
1407 Elwood Drive
Ames, IA 50011
Des Moines Botanical Garden
909 East River Drive
909 East River Drive
Des Moines, IA 50316
Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens
3125 West 32nd Street
Dubuque, IA 52001
Noelridge Park
4900 Council Street, NE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402
Amana Colonies Community Gardens
Village Preimeter
South Amana, IA 52334
ISU Outlying Research Farms

All American Selections WinnerThis emblem beside a variety name in a seed catalog or on a seed package signifies that it was an All-America Selections Winner.

This article originally appeared in the July 19, 1996 issue, pp. 126-127.


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