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Choisya Sundance - origins and abuses

Choisya ternata Sundance was a pioneering plant. One of the first shrubs to be protected by Plant Breeders’ Rights in Britain, it was also one of the first to benefit from the kind of intense marketing that now propels so many plants into garden centres and into gardens.
Choisya,Sundance,Lich,Peter Catt, Image © (all rights reserved)

Discovered by British nurseryman Peter Catt, it’s a yellow-leaved form of the familiar evergreen shrub Choisya ternata with the same fragrant white flowers. You now see it in front gardens, in particular, all over the Britain. It’s interesting to know how it originated. Peter explains.

"This very popular plant started its life when, in 1978, I spotted a very small leaf, low down on an old Choisya ternata from which I was taking cuttings. I took the cutting on which this small leaf was and rooted it. When it came into growth I removed the shoot from the top, which encouraged the side shoots. These I also removed. This forced a growth from the leaf that I had spotted which was about the size of my small fingernail and had a white edge. I had envisaged a white edged variegation. To my amazement out came a golden shoot and having cleaned it up in a micro-prop lab, the plant was launched at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1986."

So from one leaf the size of a fingernail came one of the most popular of garden shrubs.

But it’s not perfect. It sometimes reverts to plain green and, as can be seen in the picture, the green shoots outgrow the yellow ones so must be removed. It also sometimes bleaches and scorches in full sun, especially on dry soils and in dry summers. And it’s not happy in drying winds.
Choisya,Sundance,Lich,Peter Catt, revert. Image © (all rights reserved)

It also suffers from misguided pruning – quite what’s behind clipping it into a rectangular box is a mystery: it may be a two minute job with the hedge trimmer, but it’s not exactly elegant.
Choisya,Sundance,Lich,Peter Catt, revert. Image © (all rights reserved)

But Choisya ternata Sundance (‘Lich’), to give it its full and proper name, is also a pioneer in another way. Nurseries that propagate protected plants must pay a royalty to the breeder for each plant they sell. But Peter Catt became increasingly incensed that growers were selling his plant without paying up, and sometimes under a different name, that he could take it no more.

The British trade magazine Horticulture Week reported: “A pioneering grower has snapped after years of trademark abuse of a showcase plant by threatening court action for those who flout rules on Plant Breeders’ Rights. Peter Catt became so angry over “plagiarism” of his Choisya ternata Sundance (‘Lich’) that he took out adverts in the horticultural press to remind growers they needed permission to grow the plant and had to pay royalties.

“It’s been going on for years and I’m so fed up,” said Peter, the managing director of Liss Forest Nursery, Hampshire. “I wish I knew exactly how many growers are involved, but it’s many thousands. If I can stem the flow by making garden centres and other buyers realise they are at fault, hopefully European growers will come round to paying royalties.”

The discovery and success of Choisya Sundance ('Lich') set Peter off on the road to raising and introducing many other fine new shrubs; Caryopteris Sterling Silver (‘Lissilv’) is one of the latest.

His plants, and those of other breeders, are still pirated but there is now an acceptance amongst growers of the need to pay royalties. But of course we still can’t prevent gardeners clipping them into boxes. I even once saw Choisya Sundance ('Lich') trained into a leaning and lopsided standard. Let’s hope a storm put it, and us, out of our misery.


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Martyn Cox

This is interesting and I can see why Peter Catt snapped. When I was a teenager I worked at nursery that used to propagate 1000s of 'Sundance' every year - I can't imagine a single penny they made from the sale of these plants ever ended up in Peter's pocket.

Graham Rice

Dutch nurseries were always the ones accused of this sort of thing, propagating thousands and selling the plants under a name very similar to the original. Peter Catt's case, and the recent Geranium Rozanne/'Jolly Bee' case ('Jolly Bee' now reckoned to be the same as the earlier Rozanne) are making everyone aware of the rules. And the penalties for breaking them.

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