Japan’s Flower of the Year Has UConn Roots

The compact butterfly bush called Pugster Amethyst is based on plants first developed in the lab of UConn horticulture professor Mark Brand

Mark Brand, professor of horticulture, working in the Tissue Cultures Lab.

Mark Brand, professor of horticulture, working in the Tissue Cultures Lab. (Jason Sheldon/UConn Photo)

A plant based on research from UConn’s Mark Brand and former PhD student William Smith has reached new heights, even though it only sits about two feet off the ground.

Pugster Amethyst Buddleia was recently named Japan’s 2024 Flower of the Year by the Japan Flower Selections Association (JFA).

A variety of butterfly bush with stunning blooms and compact stature, Pugster Amethyst was cultivated from germplasm developed by Mark Brand, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and his former doctoral student, William Smith in 2008.

Pugster Amethyst butterfly bush
Pugster® Amethyst Butterfly Bush (Proven Winners)

Germplasm describes any part of a plant – from seeds to stalks – that can be used to breed, research, or conserve a plant. The UConn team patented the original cultivars and licensed them to Spring Meadow Nursery. They were sold nationally through the Better Homes and Gardens plant line at Walmart and ended up in homes around the nation.

When he graduated from UConn in 2010, Smith become a shrub plant breeder with Spring Meadow Nursery. Spring Meadow is the nursery in charge of managing the Proven Winners ColorChoice shrub program.

With his intimate knowledge of the germplasm he and Brand developed, Smith and Tim Wood, head of product development and marketing at Spring Meadow Nursery, crossed the initial dwarf Buddleia cultivars with large-growing variants that had more vibrant flower color. The result was a new dwarf cultivar with slightly enhanced colors that became part of the Pugster series of butterfly bushes.

“Our UConn butterfly bush germplasm was quite unique and allowed the nursery industry to take a big step forward in improving what was available on the market,” says Brand.

A Bloom of Distinction

Nominated plants are judged by experts at Chiba University for field and greenhouse performance. In this year’s competition, 61 varieties were selected as finalists, with one plant in each category receiving the top award, Flower of the Year. Pugster Amethyst Buddleia won top honors in the garden plant category.

“This [Plant of the Year] award is the most famous and prestigious one in Japan,” says Masashi Fujiwara, marketing director at Hakusan, the company that manages Proven Winners ColorChoice shrubs in Japan on behalf of Spring Meadow. “A New Standard for Good Flowers” is the motto of JFA, and it expresses their confidence in Pugster Amethyst as the best new garden plant introduction in Japan this year.”

Adorably Resilient

Pugster butterfly bushes pack a big punch in a small package. All of the varieties are dwarf forms developed from UConn germplasm. Each one has been bred to have a different flower color. Small, cute, and tough – that’s what Brand suspects the Proven Winners marketing team was trying to convey when they chose the name “Pugster” for this group of plants.

“The stems are quite thick and sturdy and give the plants better cold hardiness, a trait that is lacking in other butterfly bush cultivars,” says Brand. “Of course, the Pugster butterfly bushes are still great for attracting pollinators, and they possess good deer browse resistance and a long season of bloom in most of the summer.

The influence of UConn’s butterfly bush germplasm on the nursery industry has set a new standard for excellence. The Pugster series, with its charming compactness and vibrant flower colors, has seen continued success, overshadowing its predecessor, the Soda Pop series, according to industry experts.

As the Proven Winners program has evolved over time, the Pugster series continues to captivate gardening enthusiasts worldwide.

“Even though we’re somewhat removed from the introduction of these new plants at this point, it’s rewarding to know that they are appreciated by bodies like the Japan Flower Association and that through these plants, a piece of UConn is reaching homes around the world,” says Brand.