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.