by Nancy Oakes
As the time to make the rounds of garden centres and nurseries begins, I would ask that this year you take note of where the plants come from. I don't mean Ontario or a tissue culture lab in Holland. I mean more who found them, who brought them from the wild, who bred them. As I begin my fifth year of hybridizing Daylilies, I am more aware of just how long it takes to create new varieties from what nature and other breeders have provided.
Given how long professional plant hunters have been in business, I am continually amazed at the variety of plant material still being discovered in the wild. The blue form of Corydalis was found in China just a few short years ago and now it, and hardier cultivars bred from it, can be found in most garden centres.
The process, for many species, is an arduous and time consuming one: careful choice of parents; growing hundreds and thousands of seedlings from which only a few will be chosen for further evaluation; making the final selections, and then producing enough plant material to introduce to the trade. It can take tens of years for the plants to eventually find their way into your garden.
Other new plants are the result of serendipity. A home gardener develops a passion for an obscure species and after years of nurturing seedlings, something different appears-a sport. He sends a photo to the seed house where the original packet was bought and soon his garden becomes a Mecca for others with the same interest in that species. Will it come true from seed? If not, will it take well to herbaceous propagation? But in this day and age, the question more often than not is, can it be successfully tissue cultured?
This process has been a boon to the gardening industry and without it many of the most desirable of the new plants would not be available to the likes of you and me, for it would still be only the wealthy who could afford such rare discoveries. But even this scientific process can be done well or badly. When done badly the plants will be less vigorous and the flowers poor cousins to the original (Daylilies are notorious for not taking to the process). In the best of circumstances the plants are grown on to ensure that they are true clones.
It is still always people who must make that first discovery or that first cross. Modern plant hunters like Dan Heims, the king of Huecheras and Pulmonarias, Tony Avent, known for Hosta and Arisaema, and Dan Hinkley, of Corydalis `Blue Panda' fame, are responsible for bringing many new plants to the North American market. There's now a wonderful (albeit pricey) publication devoted to new discoveries and hybrids. New, rare and unusual PLANTS, A Journal for Plant Enthusiasts is published by Dirk van der Werff in England. Much of it is now posted on the internet at http://www.aquil.demon.co.uk and it's always worth a few visits for the wonderful photos or to find others interested in the same plants as you are.
So this year, as you make your way through catalogues and nurseries, please give a thought to the role so many people play in the hunt for the new-so that it can be bought by you to be put in its perfect spot in your garden.