You Can Be A Plant Breeder


The plant breeder is truly a creator, for he works, not with such dead chemicals as pigments, but with those infinitesimally small, yet living chemicals galled “genes.” Genes are the bearers of heredity in all life, from mankind to the grass itself. It is hard for us to realize that a tiny bit of matter, perhaps only a molecule or two, repeating itself in every cell of the body, can find its work cut out for it on one place only, and can determine that a woman has brown eyes, or a lilac the fragrance that takes us back to youth, or a tulip yellow petals.

So it is, and when genes are brought together in new combinations, new forms of life result. Who can say that anything is impossible in the complexity of life? Often there is no way to reach toward a new synthetic form of life, for the new must come out of the old, just as tomorrow comes out of today. However, if man had the power to reach out into the more remote realms of possibility, displaying a skill in chemistry that we are just beginning to touch today, could he not create a griffin, or a unicorn, or a fairy – or a blue rose?

It is because men do not know exactly where the bounds of possibility lie that those of us who are bitten by the “bug” of plant breeding are led on and on, transforming plant and animal life as we go. It is difficult to imagine a personality richer than that of the plant breeder, unless it is the personality of the poet. Homer must have had a lot of fun dreaming visions of Helen and Hector, and portraying Odysseus coming up out of the sea ?dreaming these visions with such vividness that they will probably live in the imaginations of men as long as the race lasts.

lilac flowers

The plant breeder is likewise immortal: that is, his work is. The plant breeder dreams of syntheses that may be, and when he has made them actual, men cultivate them henceforth. It is true that many varieties of plants are forgotten, as they are superseded by better ones, but we may be sure that they will live on in their descendants, as Marquis wheat lives on within dozens of newer wheats. Thus a plant breeder who achieves something of value is assured that the synthesis he has made will never be undone.

F. L. Skinner of Dropmore, Manitoba, born a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, and brought to the northern limits of settlement of that Canadian province in childhood, was “bitten” by the bug of plant breeding. A lifetime spent in the study of plants, in collecting species and their hybrids from far and near and in hybridization and selection, has enriched the gardens and orchards of all lovers of beauty who live in the north temperate zone, and particularly of those who live in the extreme North.

For example: The lilac is one of the most dearly treasured of ornamental shrubs, and it has received as much attention from Dr. F. L. Skinner as has the rose itself. He was the first person in prairie Canada to bring home the Korean lilacs, gifts of the famous Prof. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum, following a visit made there in 1918.

“Among the other treasures I brought back with me were some one-year-old seedlings of two lilacs grown from seed collected on the Diamond mountains of Korea by E. H. Wilson in. 1917. These lilacs, Syringa velutina and Syringa oblata dada, have proved absolutely hardy at Dropmore; and, therefore, in 1921 I crossed some of the French lilacs, which are occasionally severely injured by our Winters, with Syringa oblata dilitata. A new race of ‘American’ lilacs resulted which seems better suited to our continental climate than the European varieties of the common lilac. These new lilacs have several interesting features. Many of them have bronze leaves in the Spring and turn a deep purple in the Autumn. They do not sucker to the same extent as do the older lilacs (in fact, a hedge of the first hybrids raised in 1922 has not suckered yet) and they are extremely free-flowering and fragrant. In some of my later crosses these lilacs compare well with Lemoine’s varieties.”

Eight varieties of these lilacs have received acclaim. They are Assessippi, Churchill, Evangeline, Excel, Fraser, Laurentian, Nokomis and Pocahontas. These vary in their tone of lilac, from Churchill, which is “pale pinkish mauve,” to Assessippi, which is Argyle purple, and Pocahontas, which is dark purple. In between come Excel, which is mauve pink, and Laurentian, . which is a bluish tint of fair intensity. Evangeline alone is double, a deep lilac in color. Single lilacs, of course, make a better display from a distance than do the double ones, but double lilacs are nevertheless in demand. It is desirable that every lilac garden be provided with both.

Speaking for myself, the feature of no suckering, or relatively slow suckering, seems one of the most important of all features that it is possible to breed into a lilac – especially for a lilac that is meant to be?useful in any area where own-root plants are better than grafted plants. This, perhaps, is the entire area where the lilac, a northerly genus, is most highly adapted. Certainly, to date there is no really congenial understock for lilac plants to be grown in the far North. S. villosa is hardy and non-suckering, but not sufficiently congenial. It may be that S. oblata dilitata will prove to be the ideal understock for French lilacs, but this is yet to be demonstrated. In the meantime, to make available new varieties which do not sucker when on their own roots is to do us a favor of vast importance. Only those who have wrestled with lilac suckers for years know what a Herculean task they make inevitable, and how, if allowed to develop, they inhibit the blooming of the lilac shrub.

Fragrance, too, is of extreme importance in the lilac, second only to size and quality of flower. Around fragrance cluster man’s most poignant memories.

It is necessary to repeat that the detailed description of these “American” lilacs is meant only as a sample of one niche opened up by a modern plant breeder. When a hybridization between different species is once effected, the gate has been swung open, and, henceforth, anyone can obtain interesting results merely by sowing open-pollinated seed and growing the seedlings to flowering. As has long been recognized by geneticists, some of the most interesting and most valuable new syntheses of ancient genera occur, not in the first generation of a cross, but in second and subsequent generations. It seems hard to believe, for instance, that any lover of lilacs could read of a lilac like Pocahontas without wishing to raise and flower seedlings of it, and to feel the urge particularly strongly if it could be isolated near one of two of the finest of the recent French varieties, and so to obtain new lilacs three-quarters rulgaris and only one quarter Korean. If one of these could be found that would retain the freedom of suckering of the Korean parent, it would be an acquisition.


Very much the same situation exists in other fields of plant breeding work. Much has been done, but much remains to do, both in importing new species and thereby intermingling new genes with those that have served us so long, and in developing further segregations in the hybrid lines recently created. The first task is one for the specialist. The fact that private plants breeders such as F. L. Skinner have undertaken such work and have succeeded with it does not imply that they are not specialists. The second task is one in which every amateur gardener can take a part, and can do it without any special skills, except the skill to see where the most valuable segregations are likely to occur, and the judgment to select only the valuable among those which do occur. The latter is a rarer skill than one would think.

The pleasure of plant breeding is not only representative of the pleasure of gardening throughout, for all gardening is creative, but it is also the most intense department of it, because it is the most creative. Plant breeding is not a mysterious rite, but simple iii its principles. It is not something for several generations to tackle (except, of course, in certain plants which arc slow to attain their maturity), but can begin to yield results after one has bestowed upon it only a little attention.

The gardener is the man for whom the plant breeder works, and he has his pride, too. Ornamental gardening, whether it consists of the care and nurture of trees, shrubs or flowers, shares a good deal of the creativeness found in breeding, and like breeding is an art as well as a skill.

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