Some Problems of Amateur Plant Breeders
By John C. Wister, Swarthmore, Pa.
Mr. Nearing's article on the Dexter Rhododendrons in the October Quarterly of The American Rhododendron Society refers to two difficulties which confront all rhododendron breeders in arranging for the introduction of their best seedlings.
He emphasizes the even more important, though negative, aspect of the problem, namely the difficulty and almost impossibility of preventing the breeders' second rate or even inferior seedlings getting introduced into commerce. Such introductions may and in most cases do injure the reputation of the breeder. This, Mr. Nearing believes, is what is happening to the Dexter Rhododendrons now some ten years after Mr. Dexter's death.
This brings up the question of what, if anything, can be done by the Rhododendron Society, or groups of its members, to help prevent such unfortunate introductions, for if it cannot he prevented it undoubtedly will discourage many would-be breeders from continuing their work.
For this reason it has seemed worthwhile to write these notes. If we look back at plant breeding in the past, several interesting patterns appear. In the case of rhododendrons and azaleas the earliest breeding more than a century ago was undertaken by amateurs but their plants and future breeding was quickly taken over by professional nurserymen and as far as the present day "Iron Clad" rhododendrons of the east coast are concerned this was largely in the hands of the two great British firms of Waterer.
A distinctly new pattern of plant breeding of small herbaceous perennials has appeared in the last 30 or 40 years and because this may have a bearing on future rhododendron breeding, it is cited here. Certain hardy herbaceous plants require little space, grow quickly from seed and flower in a comparatively small number of years. Typical of these plants are the Iris and Hemerocallis and it is possible for the individual small amateur back yard plant breeder to produce ten or more generations of his own seedlings along a special line. Complete genealogies of such plants are to be found from time to time in the American Iris Society Bulletins and, more recently, in the publications of the Hemerocallis Society. The Peony, which takes only a little more room, requires more years to come to flower, so that no individual can produce as many generations, but the work of the breeders of these three plants has in the past generation virtually revolutionized the flowers and given us whole new races undreamed of before and never attempted by professionals or commercial breeders.
Some individual or amateur breeders are beginning to appear in the rhododendron field but some of their problems are quite different. More space is required to grow the plants to flowering size and more years are needed before the plants become mature enough to give typical bloom.
To encourage a comparable number of rhododendron amateurs to go into breeding on a scale comparable to the members of the Iris Society should be one of the tasks of the American Rhododendron Society. As a society it is of course endeavoring to increase interest in rhododendron growing and a special committee might well be appointed to encourage breeding and to give advice to would-be breeders.
This advice might merely be to point out what books or other publications on breeding are available, or it might point out to breeders in different areas some of the particular needs of that area and what primary parents might be considered as a start. As the breeders advance in skill such a committee might arrange to get them rare pollens which they might need and might be able to arrange to have the resulting seedlings grown on in some nursery or arboretum or experiment station.
The first advice, however, is what is most needed, because having been given a start the breeder ought to be able to arrange these things himself, having the membership list of the Society and knowing where the various test gardens are located.
The amateur having an especially fine seedling might well get advice from a committee on what nurseryman would handle it for him for mass production and might advise him whether in their opinion the variety was worth patenting.
The hardest problem of all would be to try to prevent the breeders either selling or giving away inferior seedlings. This problem becomes more acute when a breeder dies and leaves no instructions about his seedlings. His family usually will not know whether or not they have any value and which the good ones are from the bad ones. A committee from the Society working with a nearby arboretum might be able to arrange to have this work taken over at the arboretum or at a good nursery and might eventually bring in some revenue to the breeder's estate but, more importantly from the point of view of those interested in rhododendrons, might prevent the inferior ones being marketed and thus destroying the reputation of the breeder.
Mr. Nearing deplored the delay in getting into commerce the best of Mr. Dexter's seedlings. A volunteer group of rhododendron Society members has been working on that problem for over five years but the work was begun about 20 years too late. It has been necessary for the members of this group to visit some sixteen collections in order to get a comprehensive view of the seedlings which had been scattered far and wide and then it was necessary to get cuttings from these through the kindness of the owners of the estates and grow them on where they could be judged. The main collection of this propagated stock is now at the Scott Foundation at Swarthmore College and duplicates of 25 or so are being grown at the National Arboretum, at the Long Island Planting Fields and at the Arnold Arboretum, to give an opportunity to judge them in different climates. It will be some years before enough plants can be propagated to make possible their commercial offering to the public.