A trip back to my hometown has me feeling nostalgic, but I’m confronted with the yawning gap between my memories and today’s reality. During my many-decade absence things have gotten … better.
The clothes, cars, houses and plants that populate the landscape of my childhood memories have cycled through being hip, familiar, tired and now hip once again. During the intervening years we’ve managed to produce more comfortable fabric, safer cars, more efficient housing and better performing plants.
Plants can improve on their own, but it’s a slow process. Throughout many generations, plants with traits better suited for their environment survive and reproduce. Their progeny pass along their parents’ traits so what was once novel becomes normal.
Then we get involved and speed up the improvement process, but it still takes years. Plant breeders sift through thousands of plants to identify individuals with traits that may be beneficial or interesting. Those plants are then raised, propagated and their progeny are screened to see if they display their parents’ desirable traits or something altogether different. The process is repeated until the ideal plant emerges.
This brings me to a new plant released this season — it’s a dianthus. Now this is an old plant, you can find it described in some of the earliest herbals and by the 1700s, horticulturists were recording dianthus breeding experiments. Because this plant has been in our gardens for hundreds of years, I had to quiz Reid Snyder, who led the project for PanAmerican Seeds, about what could possibly be new about this plant — and why they bothered.
He said, “The new attributes of Dianthus ‘Rockin’ make it appropriate for more climates and weather conditions. Its upright habit makes it work in both gardens and containers. We’ve also bred in brighter colors for better appeal.” He’s right about the colors, they are electric and haven’t faded in the summer heat: it’s been a consistent performer this season.
Another new plant I’m enjoying solves one of my biggest challenges — not enough space. When “Everleaf Emerald Towers” basil came out from PanAmerican Seeds, I fell for it. It has an upright, columnar habit, allowing it to be tucked into tight spots. With its traditional Genovese flavor and an abundance of leaves, I’m making more pesto this summer.
Sometimes plant breeders chase after plant traits that they think gardeners want and sometimes they discover a happy accident, opening up new possibilities. Recently, I spoke with Ruth Kobayashi, who has more than 30 years’ experience working with poinsettias. As one of the top breeders in the country, Ruth has screened millions of plants during her career. Figuring she’s seen it all, I asked her if she’s ever surprised. Laughing Ruth said, “Oh yes, Mother Nature’s imagination is much better than ours.”
This season I’m happily stalking the garden centers to see what the plant breeders and Mother Nature have dreamt up for us.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.