22 November 2010

Breeder's Provenance (or, why delphiniums and those new echinacea are so whimpy)

I got thinking about insufficiently tough delphiniums and echinacea after I read Kelly Norris talking on his blog about the concept of provenance. The concept is pretty simple. Any given species of plant grows across a range of habitats and we refer to individual plants from different parts of the range as have different provenance. And provenance matters. To give an extreme example, Acer rubrum, the red maple, has a native range that stretches from frigid Maine right on down to sweltering Florida. They are all the same species, but individual trees can be very, very different depending on their provenance. A red maple from Maine can't survive Florida summers, and a Floridian red maple would collapse at the first hint of the Maine winter. Each local population of the species has evolved over time to match its local environment, gradually loosing or gaining heat or cold tolerance genes, slowly becoming better adapted to the climate and soil in one specific area and less adapted to different environments.

That is the real concept of provenance. I'm going to talk about something else all together and call it "breeder provenance" but you should be aware that I am completely making this term up.

The connection to real, biogeographical, provinance, however, is very close. Just as wild populations of a species become adapted to their local enviroment, cultivated plants, under the hands of plant breeders, become adapted to the environment where they were bred. These varieties develop a breeders provinance. Case in point: delphiniums. Delphiniums are, of course, almost obsenely lovely -- huge, lush spikes of rich, true blue. As a beginning gardener, I wanted to grow them rather desperately. Then I learned, the hard way, that in addition to being beautiful, they are drama queens. They demanding perfectly rich, moist soil, and miserably whimper away and die at the faintest hint of heat in the summer. Looking at my rows of corpses, I asked myself: Why is it that so many insanely beautiful things seem only willing to grow in England?

Pretty soon I learned the answer: Because they were bred in England. Or, in the case of some, the ever-mild West Coast. If you go back to the various wild species of delphiniums, they are far from all being cool-summer whimps. The stunning six-foot spires of Delphinium exaltatum, one of the species thought to be used in creating the modern hybrid delphiniums grow wild in the mountains of hot North Carolina. Another US native, Delphinium carolinianum, far from demanding cool, moist loam, grows wild all over the great plains and even down to the sand hills of Florida. Modern cultivated delphiniums are not such a pain to grow because that is how they have to be, rather, they have simply adapted over the years of breeding to the conditions where they have been bred: lush gardens in England and California. In other words, the breeders provinance is all wrong, and just like the red maples growing in New England, they've lost the ability to cope with the heat.

The same thing appears to be happening right now with the (formerly) tough-as-nails midwestern native, echinacea. In the wild quest for new colors and forms, the simple cone flower has moved out of the plains and into gardens and greenhouses. Instead of being forced to either cope with clay soil and hot summers or die, these new hybrids are luxuriating in rich, irrigated soil in places like The Netherlands and the Pacific Northwest, where summer heat is a mere figment of the imagination. Talented breeders there are producing an astonishing range of new varieties, while here it in the middle of the country, gardeners are snapping up the new lovely colors only to discover that many of them just don't have oomph of the old fashioned, plain pink varieties. It isn't that these breeders are doing anything wrong, it is simply a reality that you can't breed for heat tolerance without, well, heat.

That is part of the reason why I, as a plant breeder, and committed to not moving to the West Coast. I want to work in the midwest, breeding plants that are adapted to real weather. Right now I'm busy collecting up a bunch of non-wimpy delphinium species and can't wait to start crossing them together to form kick-ass, midwest-tough varieties. This is also the reason I like to keep talking on this blog about how easy plant breeding is, and how everyone ought to be doing it. The absolute best "breeders provenance" for a plant is your very own back yard. Let some of your favorite annuals self-sow, and each year they'll adjust more and more to your specific conditions. Make some tomato crosses, and see what performs -- and tastes -- best for you. Let all those breeders in Europe and the West Coast have their delicate drama queens, while we start creating great plants they'll wish they could grow.


Carlie said...

What a fascinating bit of information! I never considered something more devious at work than my own "imperfect soil" (symptom of my lack of gardening skill) or, ahem, just my own lack of gardening skill. Not that I totally suck as a gardener, I just clearly have a complex. Its great to know that there are other serious issues at play. And yes, I do feel inspired to try breeding. Good call to action! (Lemme know when those delphs are ready!)

Christopher Tidrick said...

Great post, Joseph. Glad to see we have someone breeding with us Midwest gardeners in mind.

Kat said...

Maybe plants could be the next item growers will start advertising as "locally grown." I often think the problem with all the new breeds are simply that they are bred. Humans breed for beauty and fragrance where as Mother Nature breeds for success. Interesting to see how your breeding experience goes.

Josh said...

We need more hearty, Midwest-tough plants! I look forward to hearing about your progress. I'm tempted by all the new coneflowers, but have resisted for the exact reasons you mentioned. I tried some of the first hybrids several years ago, with less than impressive results...

Joseph said...

Yay! Start breeding! It is the most fun EVER.

I have actually seen some stuff marketed as "locally grown." We really need more great nurseries like Plant Delights and Arrowhead Alpines that focus really well on their local climate.

I think some of the new coneflowers are better than others -- the first yellows, I think, actually came out of Chicago, but a lot of the newest ones are from wimpy climates. Trialing a bunch of varieties might identify the better ones.

Annie Hayes said...

Hi Jopseph, I can complain all day about this subject! i am constantly dealing with degradation of seed stock and lazy seed breeders/suppliers.
Re Delphiniums: for several years we were able to get the most remarkable (I believe) wild species from Siberia . Strongest thing you can imagine . Bloomed Spring thru Fall with at least 10 spikes at a time of smaller but beautiful deep blue blooms . It got better each year and would fade around year five for us . The problem was our propagators had very little luck germinating our own collected seed. so we relied on the seed source which was a bad move . They obviously stopped getting the wild collected species and let it cross with garden Delphiniums all the while insisting it was the true wild form . It was back to wimpy-landia for us.
Same basic problem with the named varieties of Aquilegia vulgaris, especially the 'Barlows'. They used
to grow 3' tall and 2' wide for us with loads of flowers . Now- they all are total wimps , only 1' tall and showing maybe 10-20 flowers before they die here . we are collecting seed of everything we can now for fear of this happening to everything we grow.

Liz said...

I've never thought about this, and maybe I'll start dabbling in plant breeding a bit.

danger garden said...

Very good points! I guess I am one of the lucky ones to have so much plant breeding going on practically in my backyard.

Joseph said...

Yeah... annuals and seed propagated perennials are the worst. At least with asexual stuff a variety stays the same over time.

Danger Garden,
Lucky you are. But I think it is also more fun out here... I like a challenge.

Phoebe said...

This is absolutely an issue in the horticultural world that needs more attention!
There is a huge emphasis in Australia about planting native and indigenous plants, however plant ranges for indigenous plants can vary such huge distances as you said, that genetic variation can be huge within even a sub-species! I’m so sick of specifying plants and having growers tell me they don’t know where their seed comes from other than a general supplier!
This issue has a significant impact on revegetation projects where one may think they are doing the right thing by planting 'indigenous' plants where in actual fact they may (for all intents and purposes) 'indigenous' but NOT from local provenance stock. Thus the revegetation is introducing new genetic strains that pollute the local population!!!

Ok, I’m getting off my soap box now!


Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Thanks for explanation of why the new hybrids don't have that "hybrid-vigor" that normally occurs. It makes more sense for hybridizers and breeders to do the initial breeding in the Midwest, rather than just have Midwestern growers trial plants bred in more congenial climates to determine whether they can take Midwestern conditions.

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Is the geographic location of hybridization the only reason that new varieties of Echinaceas are wimpy? What role, if any, does the act of hybridization itself play in weakening the integrity of a plant?

Just in case you may not yet have stumbled upon this site, here are some links that elaborate on the hardiness of Echinaceas. Thought you might be interested.

Joseph said...

Certainly the other species that have been brought into the mix of the new hybrid have a big effect. But when you make a hybrid between a tough species and a not-so-tough one, you'll get individuals which show a range of traits from touch to wimpy. In a harsher climate, a breeder would have to to select very aggressively for the toughest individuals. In a milder climate, a breeder can't even tell the tough and not-tough individuals apart, so they just choose the prettiest ones.

Tom said...

Thank god SOMEONE wants to breed plants for the midwest. I feel like we're always playing catch up with the rest of the world...