Native commitment

Features - Cover Story

American Beauties Native Plants establishes endowment for research to educate the industry and consumers, which will ultimately grow the market.

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February 12, 2018
Kelli Rodda
Parikha Mehta Photography

When Steve Castorani and Mark Sellew founded American Beauties Native Plants more than a decade ago, the goal wasn’t to enrich their bank account. Instead, it was to spread awareness of the benefits of native plants and popularize the category to bolster the environment. There were native plants in nurseries and garden centers throughout the country, but no one was telling the story of natives in a compelling way. The pair designed American Beauties Native Plants brand to package these plants so consumers would recognize and appreciate them.

During the past 12 years, education and philanthropy have played a critical role in the success of the brand. Through the efforts and support of its grower network, the brand has helped fund important native plant research and projects. In the beginning, American Beauties partnered with the National Wildlife Federation, and the brand has donated more than $270,000 to support the federation’s Wildlife Habitat Program.

“It was a collaborative partnership, and it was a really good fit,” says Castorani, who is also one of the founders of North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pa. “They not only promote native plants, but they have this potential customer base that didn’t know where to buy native plants.”

As the brand strengthened, it allowed the pair to broaden their ability to support other like-minded organizations. American Beauties has donated $12,000 to the Pollinator Partnership, $1,000 to the National Audubon Society, and $3,500 to Doug Tallamy at the University of Delaware. The brand also donated $5,500 to Catherine Zimmerman to support the production of her film, “Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home.”

Now that the brand has enjoyed success and has some history behind it, the pair decided the timing was right to set up an endowment for native plant research. At this year’s Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in Baltimore, Castorani and Sellew announced the establishment of a $25,000 endowment through the Horticultural Research Institute (HRI). The endowment will be funded with $5,000 per year for five years.

The American Beauties Native Plants grower network consists of Carolina Native Nursery, Civano Nursery, Midwest Groundcovers, Prides Corner Farms, Willoway Nurseries, as well as an online retailer, Garden Crossings.

“Mark and I believe this was a good time to set up the endowment so we could get more money into specific research that we can guide – research that will be able to quantify, endorse and spread the message of why native plants should be a part of everyone’s landscape. We’re not trying to make everyone’s landscapes be all native plants. But all landscapes need some native plants,” Castorani says.

Sellew, who is also president of Prides Corner Farms in Lebanon, Conn., says it’s much better to give than to receive, and the pair believe in their cause.

“It’s hard to sell an idea, but we’re selling a movement, a belief,” Sellew says. “And we truly believe in the movement. We’ve become better at selling it and telling the story. We prefer to give the money to HRI rather than to keep it ourselves.”

The brand has grown in market share, especially within the last five years, Sellew says.

“American Beauties Native Plants is our most rapidly growing program at Prides Corner,” he says. “And I’m called a brand-aholic. I have over 15 brands. Prides Corner grew American Beauties by 18 percent in 2017.”

Civano Nursery in Tucson, Ariz., part of the American Beauties Native Plants grower network, has grown the brand from a small footprint to a large customer base that reaches from California to Texas and throughout the Southwest, explains Castorani.

Alison Storm, Prides Corner Farms

Sellew says the recent growth of the brand was due in part to the pollinator issue.

“Suddenly every homeowner wanted to do something to help the pollinators,” he says. “We added the line ‘Save the Pollinators’ to our POP at retail. The consumers were suddenly paying attention to the connection between native plants and pollinators.”

Since the consumer is more aware, the need for more research is critical.

“We need to know which plants make the best pollinator plants, which ones are the best of the best,” Sellew says. “We need to know about garden performance, too. The consumer has to be successful with the plant for this to work.”

There are people conducting native plant research, but Castorani wants to see more of it promoted outside of academia.

“We’ve got to make people understand why and how natives have this relationship with birds and mammals, and how it all makes our environment sustainable and livable,” he says. “Marketing the plants is important, but having research behind it is critical.”

The brand was created to make the story of native plants easier to understand.

“People like to do the right thing, and the way we can affect the most change is in each homeowner,” Castorani says. “There’s great potential out there. Just look at New York’s High Line and how many people are visiting there. We’re just seeing the beginnings industry wide.”

Consumers can learn a great deal about natives from the brand’s tags and POP material, Sellew says.

Prides Corner Farms increased sales of the American Beauties Native Plants brand by 18 percent in 2017. Pictured is Prides Corner owners Mark and Lisa Sellew.
Alison Storm, Prides Corner Farms
“We’ve spent the time to connect that plant with what it does for the birds and pollinators, for instance. We explain the native range and educate consumers on companion plants. To tell the story more effectively, we have to make sure the presentation at retail is a destination in the store, like a store-within-a-store setup,” Sellew says.

The potential for market growth of native plants is tremendous, Sellew says, and landscape architects working on commercial jobs in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest are helping to drive it.

“On the commercial landscape front, landscape architects are using more native plants – it’s a huge trend because sustainable landscapes is a big issue. They’re looking for almost exclusively native plants and the best plants for the environment. Take Sporobolus – we used to sell 1,000 or 2,000 of those. Now we’re selling 10,000 a year,” Sellew says.

Research and education of native cultivars will continue to be an important part of the brand. American Beauties Native Plants features both straight species and cultivars. But the brand does not sell interspecific species crosses.

“Cultivars like Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ were brought to market because they’re a superior plant and the homeowner can be successful with it and see the benefits of it,” Castorani says. “Thanks to research from Mt. Cuba, we know ‘Jeana’ attracts an abundance of pollinators. Cultivars are important because they may suppress some diseases or have more bloom time.”

For more: www.abnativeplants.com; www.hriresearch.org.