20 April 2010

Of plants and red delicious apples

I learned a lot of interesting things during my visit to California's Spring Pack Trials. One thing I learned is why my sweet potato vine wasn't actually a vine last summer. I picked it up at the garden center, placed it in a container, fully expecting it to explode forth in wild trailings. Instead, it sat there, a little purple-leaved blob, steadfastly refusing to vine anywhere. Not that there is anything wrong with little round plants -- but if I had wanted a little round dark leaved plant, I would have bought a coleus.
Last year I blamed the non-vining on me (did I not fertilize enough?) or the weather (it WAS an insanely cold summer) but now I know I should be blaming it on plant breeders.
You know how tomatoes become hard and flavorless? And peaches became dry and crunchy? Because plant breeders worked their hardest developing new varieties that are easy to grow and easy to ship -- ignoring the qualities that actually make peaches and tomatoes worth eating. Well, the same thing is happening to flowers. We visited over a dozen plant breeding companies during the trip, and everywhere we went, sales people touted how great their new varieties are. They told us how their sweet potato vine is the least likely to vine (because long vines get tangled and broken during shipping). They showed us marigolds with truly remarkable shipping tolerance (big marigold flowers tend to break off on the truck). A proud salesman held up their new agastache varieties next to the old so we could see the difference. The new ones had markedly smaller, less colorful flowers, BUT: They were short and compact.
At Syngenta, they've changed lantanas from loose and spreading:

To dense and round:

And here is a mandevilla that, yep, you guessed it, never vines. You don't have to provide a trellis during production, raved our tour guide. Too bad for the gardener who buys it because they WANT it to cover a trellis.

Admittedly, gardeners carry a lot of the blame for this. We saw some gorgeous plants which everyone agreed would be hard to sell. For example, here is what the new Gomphrena 'Fireworks' looked like in the annual trials at MSU last summer:

That loose, air habit is pure gold in the garden. In a pot, as it would be sold, however, it looks sparse -- a few long stems with smaller flowers at the tips. Most people don't know enough to buy plants for what they will look like once they fill in, they just grab what looks pretty on the bench at the garden center or big box store. What looks pretty on the bench is small, compact, rounded, with lots of flowers. What looks good in the garden is something looser, more spreading, so that instead of being a series of little round balls of flowers, a bed of plants that interact, branches, flowers, colors coming together to create a unified whole.

Coming away from this, I have a couple thoughts.

As a gardener, I am saddened. The wild, trailing habit of sweet potato vines is what made them so ridiculously popular in the first place. Now their best feature is being systematically removed.

I'm also hopeful. In the food world, educated consumers are gradually turning things around. Apples like Honey Crisps, which are more difficult to grow and ship, are starting to replace the mealy, bland, Red Delicious, which is easily grown and shipped, but not worth eating. More and more heirloom, and heirloom-style, tomatoes with real flavor are turning up. Hopefully the same thing will happen with flowers. Gardening is growing in popularity every year, and thanks to the internet, gardeners are becoming better and better educated. I think the trend will begin to turn back to varieties which have been bred for how they perform in the garden, not on the truck to a big box store.

I also have another perspective. I'm studying plant breeding, and plan to make my career in it. In order to make varieties which people will buy, will I be forced to breed plants which I don't think are worth growing? I hope not -- and I think not. When we were visiting Syngenta Flowers, the head buyer for Wal-Mart walked in. A cloud of sales people buzzed around him, showing him proudly how their breeders had managed to take every plant imaginable and give them all exactly the same, highly shippable, growth habit. Petunias, lantana, mandevilla that all look identical! Hurray! At Takii, however, we were showed around a lovely display garden, with plants actually growing in the ground. No Wal-Mart representative was in sight, but a sales person talked with authentic passion to a groups of independent garden center owners about designing with their varieties, and how to educated consumers about new varieties that might not look quite as impressive on the sales bench, but perform better in the real world. I think the future of plant breeding holds both: Big box stores will increasingly demand -- and get -- the flower equivalent of red delicious apples, while good garden centers will keep looking for and growing better plants that need a little more care, and might have an ugly-duckling stage.

Meanwhile, if anyone has a good, old, VINING sweet potato vine, I need cuttings.


danger garden said...

You have help sum up some of my doubts about this breeding thing, thank you. I'm glad that you feel there will be a place for both types of breeders...it would be a sad reality of there weren't ones like you entering the profession.
I do admit to wishing someone would come up with a moisture tolerant agave.

Mary C. said...

wow. that is really sad. those growers have been brainwashed by the bottom line instead of doing it because they love the plants.

Joseph said...

Danger Garden,
I actually DO have an idea which I am reasonably confident would result in a moisture tolerant agave. But the problem is you can't make hybrids without flowers, and getting flowering agaves in central Michigan isn't exactly easy.

Diana/ Garden on the Edge said...

Thanks for the warning about sweet potato vines. I guess I'll skip those in the annual bed.

I bought seeds of Gomphrena Fireworks so that I could have a big mass of them this summer (just potted up 10 seedlings). Nice photo - it gives me an idea of what to expect (fingers crossed).

I'm finding that the more into plants I get the more I am shopping on-line so that I can find something that isn't the same-old-sh...tuff that the big box stores sell. I hope there continues to be a market for gardeners like me who are, really, plant collectors. Good post.

Matt DiLeo said...


Christine B. said...

I was wondering what was up with the sweet potato "vines" I bought last year. They just stayed put, no spilling over the container and I was disappointed. Thanks for filling us in.

Christine in Alaska

Carol Michel said...

Excellent info. "Buyer beware". I have always been leery of perfectly blooming flats of annuals, knowing those are manipulated genetically or chemically to do that. I try to go to local growers who grow their plants on the premises and don't have to worry about shipping.

Which reminds me, by far the biggest nightmare for retailers are the Wave petunias which get all tangled together in their little six packs. I hope they don't mess those up to make them better "on the shelf"!

Joseph said...

You are right -- Wave petunias are certainly a good example of a breeder (in this case, Ball Horticultural) bucking the trend and breeding a great plant for consumers even though it is a headache for producers. I doubt Ball will mess with it -- it is a run-away success for them.

Michelle Clay said...

Great article! I'm a new gardener, and the stuff in big box stores couldn't be less appetizing. I go for unusual mail-order native plants and seed-starting. I haven't been at it long enough to have bred anything, but some of the seeds I'm starting came from my own plants. Does that count?

Joseph said...

It totally counts! Saving seeds from plants you like was how all the old heirloom vegetables and flowers were bred. Just save seeds from your very favorite individuals, and after a few years, you'll have your own, unique strain.

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