Exponential enthusiasm
Peter van Rijssen
Richard Smit

Exponential enthusiasm

Features - Cover Story

Meet Peter van Rijssen and learn what drives his passion for helping breeders promote their beloved plants.

June 2, 2022

Photos by Richard Smit

Is it the floral suits and matching shoes? Is it the dynamite smile? Perhaps it’s the zest for plants and genuine concern for breeders that makes doing business with Peter van Rijssen a delight. Peter is part owner of Concept Plants along with his father Reinier and business partner Gary Vanburen. Concept Plants represents breeders and helps introduce their plants to the North American market. From patents and trialing to securing grower partners and marketing, Peter and his team support breeders every step of the way.

Anyone who’s brought a new plant to market knows that path is not typically straight – it’s often a trip with some hairpin turns and a few detours. Peter learned from his father, Reinier, about the green industry and specifically about breeding plants and protecting the breeders. Reinier bred Germini, a miniature Gerbera daisy, while working for a Dutch company. His employer made promises regarding his discovery, but those promises never materialized. As a result, he left the company and started Plantipp with a goal to represent breeders and their plants. Plantipp focuses on the European market.

Career decisions

Even Peter’s path to working in the family business wasn’t as straightforward as going from point A to point B.

Prior to joining the family business, Peter attended a car dealership management school. This private, five-year school was designed to teach all the skills necessary to own or manage a dealership. With Peter’s self-confessed love for cars, it seemed like a natural step. But three years into it, Peter realized this profession wasn’t his calling.

He thought the management and marketing skills he learned would benefit him and the family business.

“I always did like what my father was doing,” Peter says. “The first 10 years were very difficult, because [bringing] a new plant to market takes a long time. I did not have any issues with that at all. And I decided, ‘Let’s do it together. How fun is that?!”

But first he needed to experience the nursery industry in a more comprehensive way. At age 21 he traveled the world doing work studies with several nurseries. He spent three months in New Zealand (where he also practiced speaking English) and another three months in Canada. Next, he worked at Overdevest Nurseries in Bridgeton, New Jersey, for three months before spending time at Japanese nurseries then back to The Netherlands to train with growers closer to home.

During all his travels he did not ask for a paycheck, but simply boarding and on-the-job training. Lucky for him, the nurseries all presented him with a check before he left.

“It wasn’t my idea to make money – I just wanted a place to learn and to sleep,” he says. “Learning by experience is important. And I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the job and do it well.”

One of the things that surprised him most during his travels was the dichotomy between the world nursery markets. In Holland, growers are more specialized, concentrating primarily on two or three crops, while in the U.S., like at Overdevest, a nursery may grow 1,500 crops, he explains. He also discovered the containers are larger in Europe than those in the U.S., such as a 1 liter vs. a 2-gallon. And in Japan, he found growers primarily sold plants in quarts because most Japanese consumers are gardening on balconies. He was also surprised at how many laborers were working at U.S. nurseries and how labor is so much more expensive in Europe.

Peter and grower Bob Hoogerdijk of Hoogeveen Plants take a look at the Agapanthus Everpanthus collection.

Focus on breeders

Concept Plants represents a mix of people including the backyard or hobbyist breeder, the collector and the professional breeder. They all have one thing in common, Peter says: passion.

“That is what they like to do most. Those plants are basically their babies and you do have to treat them that way,” he explains.

Honesty is one central principle that is practiced throughout the company and building trust with breeders is at the core.

“I learned from various people that you always need to be honest – in good and bad times. With a new plant, it is not always a Cinderella story,” he says. “We are very transparent in what we do and how we work. We relieve breeders so they can focus on what they like most and that is breeding.”

When Peter and his team are considering bringing a new plant to market, one of the first questions they ask is, “What is the value in this variety?”

“People aren’t going to pay a 40-cent royalty for something that doesn’t have value,” he says. “And we have to answer all the questions [about the plant] before the growers ask the questions.”

One way they accomplish that goal is through trialing, which can take several years.

Sometimes breeder relationships are formed in the most unexpected places, like a friend’s wedding. Peter was attending the nuptials of green-industry dynamo Brienne Gluvna and David Arthur. At the reception, Peter found his place card and was seated next to nurseryman Pat McCracken. Pat had recently shuttered his nursery because of the recession and was feeling down about the prospects of the market. In walks Peter in a custom-made suit covered in a tulip pattern and flashing that irresistible grin. Peter listened to Pat’s story and asked him if he’d bred any plants. Pat described his introduction, Sunshine Ligustrum. Peter was intrigued by the plant’s chartreuse foliage and asked Pat if he could help him market it. Peter was tasked with finding the right grower partners to boost up the quantities and find the sweet spot in terms of the right royalty price.

“In the beginning, the quantities were low and the royalty was too high,” he recalls. “He agreed to let me help him, and in my head, I had the picture of what I would do with the plant and how I’d market it with the right partners.”

Eight years have passed since that serendipitous meeting and more than 1 million units of Sunshine Ligustrum are sold each year, making it Concept’s best-selling shrub. It’s an exclusive in the Southern Living Plant Collection & Sunset Plant Collection.

“Nowadays, Pat is building greenhouses – not to grow and sell plants, but to breed,” Peter says. “That is where his passion is, and that is what makes me so super excited.”

A decade ago, Peter invited Ireland-based Pat Fitzgerald to the California Spring Trials. He’d worked with Pat at Plantipp and wanted to explore the opportunities for his varieties in North America. Pat bred the EverColor series of sedges. The pair took some of his plants to Hollywood for a photoshoot and found some dedicated grower partners to take on the crop of evergreen carex with the colorful leaf margins.

“In the beginning, the crop had its ups and downs, but it is now very stabilized,” Peter says. “The plants in the EverColor series are very versatile and that’s what makes them so successful.”

Once Concept Plants releases a plant to the market, the breeders do not remain behind the scenes. Peter and his team use the breeders’ story, which is a critical part of marketing package.

Some 10 years ago, Concept Plants began representing breeder Pat Fitzgerald’s EverColor Collection.

Plants in the pipeline

There are still plenty of plants that make Peter pause and say, “wow.”

One is a red foliage pineapple that is currently in Florida trials. He’s hoping to release it in the U.S. in 2023 or 2024.

The new Surreal Semponium ‘Destiny’ won’t be released in the U.S. until 2024 or 2025, but it won Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show in May. It’s a Sempervivum x Aeonium hybrid with a fire-red color that doesn’t fade in the summer. It’s from Surreal Succulents, a UK-based breeder.

“The red color really has a lot of impact,” Peter says. “Since succulents are still so popular, I see this as a good plant for Southwest landscapes and a good choice for an indoor plant in northern climates. We don’t know the hardiness yet.”

Look for Heliopsis ‘Luna Roja’ in the U.S. next year or in 2024. This dwarf variety features an almost black foliage and it’s hardy to Zone 4. The orange and red flowers are attractive to bees, Peter says.

He’s also working on a new line of buddleias that are naturally dwarf and offer new colors, something he calls “a game-changer.”

After 16 years working in the family business, Peter still finds joy daily interacting with breeders and growers.

“I enjoy the passion and happiness of all the people in this industry. I don’t feel the pressure of performance. As long as you do your best, it all comes together.”

For more: www.conceptplants.com