Publications (Paul's Blog)

September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:54 pm

I’ve done it, you’ve done it. We are all guilty. It is part of our very nature to choose the one that is pretty when we have a choice. Doesn’t matter if we are considering a new car, furniture, or a set of towels for the bathroom, the size, style, pattern, and/or color always impacts our decision making process. Plant breeders, horticulturists, and in fact all of us in the gardening industry are keenly aware of this. It is really hard to sell an ugly plant!!
You might think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with improving the looks of plants by selective breeding and you would be right for the most part. There is very little harm done in selecting a pretty face from amongst a large group of seemingly identical specimens. That plant can now be propagated from stem cuttings, root division, or grafting to make identical clones that will retain the desirable trait(s) of the parent. This is how we propagate most of our fruit and nut trees, lawn grasses, roses, and many of the plants we find common in the home landscape. However, there is a darker side to our seeking of perfection and demanding more, bigger, and better(?) selections.
One of the greatest fears among those of us involved in using native plant material for ornamental landscaping is that as these plants become more popular the hardiness, tolerance to drought, pests, and disease resistance will be bred out of them. For instance, our native purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea) now comes in a variety of colors including the natural hues from white to pink, to purple and new introductions of yellow, orange, and red.
These new cultivars are often obtained by backbreeding selected plants into themselves. Like selecting darker pinks to attempt to eventually come up with a true red specimen. As these select few are backbred over and over it creates a situation akin to inbreeding animals and humans. The genetic diversity of the plant is lost. The gene pool becomes shallow and what you wind up with is a pretty face that does not have the attributes of its wild cousins.
Roses are a very good example of this. Literally thousands of named rose cultivars exist. Of these, some have been backbred (inbred) so many times that they have become finicky and will not survive without human care. Others, mainly the old varieties we call “antique roses,” remain true to their wild heritage and grow vigorously with little or no care at all. Major difference. A novice choosing their first rose who will likely base their decision on looks alone may decide that roses (all roses) are hard to grow because they chose a fussy cultivar. They aren’t.
Hence the renewed popularity of heirloom plant varieties, open pollinated vegetables, and true native plant species. More and more people are discovering that these plants are much easier to care for than their modern day hybrid counterparts not to mention the fact that they will make viable seed that will naturalize or can be replanted to produce new plants that will come true to the parent species. If you are interested in low maintenance, a true naturalized landscape, or saving your own seed from the vegetable garden, this offers a distinct advantage over purchasing new plants year after year. But you must beware of the pretty face.
In defense of the horticulture industry, astute plant breeders are also aware of this trend. Many of the new rose releases are simply hybrids that have been bred from the old antiques and given a new name. Vegetables are being selected for resistance to drought, disease, and insects. All sorts of heirloom variety plants are finding their way back into the market place, and we are rediscovering the beauty and practicality of our native plants as well. Still, the market is driven by what folks are willing to purchase and most people like variety. You can’t really blame the industry for attempting to produce what people say they want. There is profit to be made by producing lots of pretty faces.
It is my opinion that I hope is shared by gardening enthusiasts everywhere, that we should not sacrifice plant vigor for the sake of beauty alone. It does not serve us very well to have say, a red bluebonnet if the thing can’t live outside the greenhouse environment or if it won’t reproduce from seed.
I recall from my childhood my mother’s frustration with her new colored periwinkles. When they dropped their seed and came back the second year they were all white. So she goes back to the nursery and buys more of the colored periwinkles and the following year they reseeded and again they came out white. Come to find out, the true color of wild periwinkles are white as Nature intended and bluebonnets are generally………….well, blue.
Nowadays we have many different colors of periwinkles. Most of these are sterile due to the incessant backbreeding so they don’t even produce white offspring anymore. The same holds true of most annual bedding plants, many vegetable varieties, and flowering perennials in the traditional nursery system. Gardeners have come to accept the fact that they are going to buy new transplants whenever they want annual color. Some even get a bit perturbed whenever annuals actually do volunteer from seed. They are not used to such behavior and fear those plants will “take over” when in truth, during my mom’s day, we expected reseeding annuals as the norm. In Nature, all annuals drop seed and return reliably year after year. Only human tampering can produce sterile hybrids.
Of course, we all will have a hard time to keep from falling for the latest pretty face to hit the market. That provides some solid job security for the plant breeding industry. Just be aware of what you are buying in to. If you like it, so be it.
There are also plenty of folks in the business, including me, who are out there searching for those good old fashioned plants to make them available once again. There are a growing number of seed companies who focus on heirloom and open pollinated varieties. To be sure there are plant breeders who are listening to the demands of the gardening public. Where there is a demand, there will be those willing to fill that niche.
Ultimately it is the customer who decides whether of not the latest trends catch on or fall by the wayside. If you come across the new red or orange echinaceas you will likely have to try them. So will I. Just bear in mind that these may not perform as well as the true native varieties. My advice is to buy a few and see for yourself, but resist the urge to replant your entire landscape. If they don’t hold up, then don’t buy any more. Stick with the natives if you want maximum performance with minimal care. There is more to landscaping than pretty faces. Look for pretty combined with practical……… that’s the ticket!!!

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