25 August 2010

Why I breed plants

You, gentle reader, may not know this, but while I am a passionate gardener, I am an wildly obsessive plant breeder.

I realize most people, even most gardeners, aren't plant breeders -- they've never made a single cross or selection. It is almost mind-boggling to me. I know other people are different but how, how possibly could so many people overlook THE MOST FUN THING about gardening?

So I've been thinking about how to communicate how thrilling it is.

Here are a couple images:
At the top of each picture are two species of petunia, and below them are some of their grandchildren (More technically, F2 hybrids. For more detail, see this.) I don't even LIKE petunias but these pictures make my heart skip a beat. All those flowers below are the secret, hidden flowers just waiting to be discovered. New combinations of color, shape, fragrance, and size.  Take two plants, dab a little pollen, save some seeds, and out comes a wild kalodoscope of new flowers.

Take two tomatoes, (in this case, Matt's Wild Cherry and Black Krim) and here is the flurry of sizes and colors that came out:

And they all taste different! Sweetness, tartness, savoryness, and all the 300+ flavor compounds that make a tomato shaken up into essentially endless variation. Tasting my way through this hybrid population is a thrilling exploration: Some are okay, some vile, some -- a rush of excitment here -- are simply delicious.

To me, plant breeding is the prefect combination of creativity and discovery -- the two most exciting things in the world. I start with an idea (Wouldn't this tomato taste good if it were a bit sweeter? Or this if it were more savory and complex?). The goal in mind, I start making crosses to try and create it. But, instead of merely succeeding or failing in my quest to create, each step of plant breeding throws open a whole new world to explore! Looking, tasting, and sniffing as I go, I feel like Columbus stepping into a new world surprised and delighted by what I find. When I find what I want, the rush of discovery is combined with that other great rush, the euphoric sense of "I made this. It existed only in my mind, and now it exists, for the first time, in the world!"

I know everyone is different -- and for most people, this is no more appealing than playing baseball is to me (I mean, really? Standing around watching people try to hit balls with sticks?) But if what I describe sounds appealing, go ahead and give it a try. It isn't hard, and life will in the garden will never be the same again. You can even get started letting bees do most of the work as I describe for violas or columbines, or dive right into the slightly more complex, but marvelously delicious joys of tomato breeding!


mr_subjunctive said...

I'd really like to be a plant breeder, but that's harder to do indoors than you'd think. I do plan to try to cross some Schlumbergeras this fall/winter, though. For anything else, I don't have any blooms, or I don't have synchronous blooms, or I have synchronous blooms that aren't compatible with one another. It's sad, really.

Nic said...

It is really great to read such a passionate description of such a fascinating hobby/profession...Makes me want to try my hand at it as well.

Mary C. said...

I would love to do breeding experiments, but for edibles like tomatos I just don't have the space for it. I only have a very few large containers for them and I can't lose the space for 3+ months to find out I have an icky hybrid :/
However, I think some of my sweet peas from this spring might have intermingled and I'm anxious to find out what kinds of blooms their seeds are going to produce!
And I've got seeds for two new varieties of columbines to mix in with my rocky mountains so that should be fun...

Liz said...

I like your pictures. F2 hybrids are awesome.

Liza said...

Ohmigosh, you are adorable!

4theluvofgardening said...

I thought about doing this with my crops this year. How many plants did you plant from the seed saved from your cross between Matt's wild cherry and black Krim to get that many variations?

Joseph said...

Each one of those tomatoes pictured is from a different seedling from the cross. I think I grew a total of 40 some, but you can do less if you have less room. The more the grow, the more variation you can see.