WARNING: I'm going to offer an opinion in this post that you may find objectionable.... reader discretion is advised.
Please take a look at the photo below and notice two things.... First, notice the number of entries. This is the "Grown for Foliage" class for Petrocosmea at the 2009 Gesneriad Society Annual Convention Show in Silver Springs, MD. The intent of this class is to provide a place to enter those nonflowering gesneriads that possess significant ornamental value for the parts of the plant other than the flowers, such as foliage, stems, calyces, etc. There were around 30 entries in this class. It was subdivided into about five or six smaller classes due to the large number of entries. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, take an objective look at the entries on the table and ask yourself if there is anything particularly ornamental about them. Granted you cannot see them well due to the distance of the photograph from the individual entries, but is that anything about them that makes you say "wow" what a striking plant?
As a keen admirer of Petrocosmea, when I first viewed this section of the show, I said, "wow" but that was due to the number of entries. However, once I got past that, as I looked at them, I had to ask, "why are all of these entered into the foliage class of the show?" Now, remember, those plants entered out-of-bloom for judging are intended to possess some particularly ornamental quality about the foliage or the plant habit that is ornamental. At this point in the argument, people usually challenge me by saying that "Petrocosmea has an ornamental growth habit to the foliage". Granted, many of the Pet species do have a pleasing foliage habit. That flat, symmetrical, spiraled pattern to the foliage rosette is attractive, and has some ornamental value. Notice I said "some". But, many Pet species do not have this...kerrii, barbata, nervosa, often flaccida and parryorum are not particularly pleasing as they want to grow. But, others like forrestii and minor just "do that"...they generally, without any intervention from the grow, just naturally form and near-perfect rosette. But what else is there to make them ornamental...and by this I mean ornamental ENOUGH to rise to the level of a first class show specimen? I say, not much else is there in most cases. The fact is, in my opinion, in most cases the average Pet, when out of bloom is just a plain green plant. Consider other plants that do this...Sempervivum, Aeonium, Haworthia, many Primula, Bromeliads, and even many Saintpaulia hybrids do this....but do we see them on show tables entered when they are out of bloom? Usually, No if the leaves are plain green with no other coloring, variegation, etc. Why don't we see these other plants entered when out of bloom? Because they are not showy enough to win awards if they are not in flower.
Consider this blue ribbon and Best In Class winner above...P. forresttii. Other than the form of the rosette, is there anything particularly ornamental about this plant? It won these high awards based on the ornamental value of the foliage in large part..... Should it have? Do any of us believe that the grower here likely had to exert any great effort to get the plant to achieve this shape and symmetry? Probably not....P. forrestii just grows that way without any intervention.
Another first place winner above...P. barbata. Anything striking about the foliage on this one? It is a lovely little P. barbata...... but is it ornamental enough to get such a high score?
So then, why are these plants getting such high awards and why are we seeing so many of them entered for Ornamental value in shows? My thoughts are that we are still getting over the "new and rare" effect that we so often feel and see when new species and hybrids are introduced. Most Pet species in cultivation in the USA and Canada right now have only arrived within the last decade or so. Prior to that we grew P. parryorum, P. flaccida, P. nervosa and P. kerrii. P. formosa came along around 1998. Then in the years following that we had P. forrestii, P. minor, sericea, rosettifolia, etc, etc. So for many growers we're still infatuated with the "new-ness" of these plants. Yes, they are charming, and interesting ,and new, and rare, but are they strongly "ornamental" when not in bloom and when you exclude those factors? No... in most cases it's a plain green leaf...sometimes with a bit of silvery hairiness, or a curled leaf margin, or a bit of yellow central veining as in some of the rosettifolia clones, but do they rise to the level of Episcia 'Cleopatra' or Pearcea hypocyrtiflora, Gasteranthus atratus, or Smithiantha cinnabarina? THOSE are the plants the ornamental foliage classes were intended to accommodate in shows... plants that you can spot from across the room due to the striking foliage.
Lets consider, though, that I am being a bit harsh, and lets accept the argument that it is the foliar rosette, and that flat, perfectly symmetrical form and habit to the growth pattern that IS the ornamental quality which makes a Petrocosmea ornamental when out of bloom. Okay, lets explore that. Granted, the public often approaches a Petrocosmea in a showroom and says "WOW, look at that!... Look at how perfect it is!" I've spent a great deal of time standing near the Petrocosmea section in a showroom with the sole purpose of observing and studying the public's reaction to my favorite genus. I've seen and heard this reaction many times. So, in fairness, yes, there is something quite ornamental about the form or habit of the plant itself. If we are then to accept and make room for this , then certainly one should expect near perfection in this regard for the blue ribbon Pet entries. But we're not seeing that. Think back to the last few shows you've attended or photos you've seen of award winning Pets that were out of bloom.... were those plants on the table the best of the best with regard to form, symmetry, even pleasing shape and habit? Were they mature plants in all cases? To rise to the level of a show specimen, they should exhibit evidence of maturity, careful and consistent care, shaping, training and grooming. Given the ease with which most Pets naturally shape-up as they mature, judges should be requiring a first place winner to be perfection in most every regard. The form of the rosette should be a perfect circle without gaps in the leaf pattern.
Take a look at this first place winner above... P. menglienensis. It appears to be little more than a starter plant, with a rosette that is weak and open, and asymmetrical. There are gaps and it certainly is not a perfect circle. Leaves are really pretty much plain green leaves. Why a blue ribbon? Giving such a plant a blue ribbon does not do the exhibitor or the public any favors. There is often the argument to "be kind" in judging and just reward the effort to bring it in for the show. Huh? Awarding such entries high awards misrepresents that standard and potential for the plant, as well as misrepresenting the basis of the whole judging process. That does no one a favor. Better to take such an opportunity to educate the exhibitor and the public. That is the duty of the judges in such a situation...education. This is a healthy, young plant, with great potential to become a large, attractive flowering plant which will demonstrate the true potential of this beautiful species. But, P. menglienensis is a plant that most likely will always perform best as a show specimen when in bloom..... it possesses nothing particularly ornamental when out of bloom, whether large or small.
So, there it is. The opinion of someone who has spent a lot of time over the past few years learning about, and growing to love the genus Petrocosmea. I grow them, I bloom them, I hybridize them, and yes, I even fail with them. I also judge them as a master judge for the Gesneriad Society and I DO exhibit them.... Almost without exception, I enter them as either a "New Species" when that is the case, or as "New Hybrids". Perhaps I'll enter them as a collection to show the variation within the genus. They certainly are excellent plants for educational exhibits because we are learning so much about them everyday.. BUT, I am very hesitant to enter them when out of bloom for ornamental value. I simply feel as a judge, exhibitor, hybridizer, and most importantly, as their greatest admirer, even at their best, they lack significant ornamental value if they are not blooming. My purpose in this post is to begin to spark thought and consideration on the part of exhibitors and judges about the current manner with which we treat these entries in shows. I feel that the standard for awarding non-flowering Petrocosmea entries should be re-evaluated. It is kinder and fairer of the judges to educate than to give awards that lack substance. Now, I'm going to go and water my Petrocosmeas......