The Life of a Plant Hunter
You don't have to be an expert to discover the "mutants" in your garden.
By Stacy Tornio, Managing Editor
Diana Reeck discovered Campanula
'Samantha' for Terra Nova Nurseries
For years, Mike Arnold encouraged his students to go out into the plant world and "hunt" for new varieties of wildflowers. As a professor in the horticulture department at Texas A&M University, Mike knew that researchers are always developing and improving plants to appeal to backyard gardeners. And he wanted his students to get a taste of what the process takes.
Pretty soon, Mike's students turned his own advice back on him. "Why don't you try to develop new varieties, too?" they asked. Mike didn't have a good answer, so he took them up on the challenge. Along with some help from graduate students, Mike began collecting seeds from wildflowers growing along the side of the road. Today, he receives credit for discovering Helenium amarum 'Dakota Gold', a type of sneezeweed that is compact and heat tolerant-perfect for everyday gardeners.
"We wanted it to be a low-maintenance bedding plant for the garden," Mike says. "It just needed a little work from its current form in the wild."
It took a few years, but Mike and his team finally got the flower into a fairly uniform plant. They weren't able to complete the genetics required for developing a new plant, so they turned 'Dakota Gold' over to the Ball Discoveries program. Ball Horticultural Company runs it in an effort to encourage new discoveries in gardening.
"We licensed our current research with Ball, and then they made our vision come to life," Mike says. "And to think-it all started with some students who were trying to make me eat my own words."
'Dakota Gold' photo courtesy of Mike Arnold.
Brian Corr is the new crops development manager for Ball in Chicago, Illinois. The company offers one of the biggest "plant discovery" programs to home gardeners with its Ball Discoveries program.
Over the years, some of the program's successes have
included wave petunias, Plectranthus 'Mona Lavender,' Alternanthera 'Purple Knights' and Argyranthemum 'Madeira'.
While horticulture researchers and professionals have developed many of these plants, Corr says their program is open to ordinary gardeners, too.
"It just takes sharp eyes, a love of plants and a little determination to find a new variety," Brian says.
Purple millet photo courtesy of Ball Discoveries.
One of Ball's most popular discoveries is 'Purple Majesty' millet (right). It came from a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who had no intention of growing an ornamental plant.
Dave Andrews was breeding millet for agricultural purposes when he discovered a purplish plant in his crop from India. Dave had no use for the unique-looking millet-it did not help him in his goal of developing a good grain-producing plant-but he knew there was something special about it.
The millet went to the university's genetics nursery where students could study its unusual characteristics. It stayed there for years, without Dave thinking anything of it. Then, in 1996, the millet caught the eyes of a nursery owner who was visiting the school. He suggested Dave enter it in the All-America Selections, a contest designed to promote new garden seed varieties. In 2003, 'Purple Majesty' won the rare Gold Medal award from the AAS, which is reserved for extremely exceptional new plants.
"'Purple Majesty' millet is all over the world now," Brian says. "It's doing well as a great landscape plant."
In Search of "Mutants"
Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon is another company that offers a plant discovery program to everyday gardeners. Owner Dan Heims started the nursery with a discovery of his own. In the 1990s, he was traveling overseas when he noticed an interesting coral bell plant. Within a few years, he introduced coral bells 'Snowstorm' to the United States.
'Fragrant Angel' photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.
"It was a strong plant, and I got it into tissue culture so we could reproduce it here," Dan says. "That provided the seed money for Terra Nova, and then I started my breeding program."
Since then, Terra Nova has introduced a number of new plants to the United States, through their own findings and those of other gardeners. For example, Echinacea 'Fragrant Angel' (left) is a coneflower that Terra Nova developed through their nursery. It's unique because of its pure-white, scented flowers. They cultivated it from a single purple coneflower plant that had one of its branches come up white.
"This happened in our nursery, but it can happen in any garden, too," Dave says. "Approximately one in every 10,000 plants has a mutation. You just have to keep your eyes open."
Campanula 'Samantha' photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.
That's exactly what Diana Reeck did in her Washington garden. She found a campanula plant that was beautiful and unusually fragrant, so she worked with Terra Nova to develop it into something they could mass produce. The result is Campanula 'Samantha' (right).
Pioneers in Horticulture
Some of the best plant discoveries have come from people known as "plant hunters." Bobby Ward, author and gardener, profiles a number of these well-known plant enthusiasts in his book, The Plant Hunter's Garden.
"Many of these people aren't necessarily trained botanists. They've come to this just for their love of plants," Bobby says. "Their passion and drive led them to look for new plants that might be available for them to grow."
Many of the plant hunters featured in Bobby's book travel overseas to look for plants that are new to North America. It's not as simple as just finding interesting plants, though. The people who are successful have to find the plants, get permission to gather the seed and then test the growing conditions, which can take several years.
It's not always a happy ending. Many "discoveries" often end in defeat, and it can take years before a plant is ready for production. Even then, some plants are never good candidates for mass distribution, and are better suited for specialty nurseries and growers.
One of the people featured in Bobby's plant hunter
book was Bob McCartney. He is one of the owners of Woodlanders, a nursery specializing in rare and exotic plants. They only have a handful of staff, which is different than a large company like Ball Horticulture, but they've been around for nearly 30 years and receive business from all over the world.
"We have a category that we refer to as 'plant nuts,' and we love them because they love our plants," Bob says. "These plant nut people don't just buy something because it's pretty. They want something specific."
One of the most popular plants at Woodlanders is the pure-white Kentucky wisteria 'Clara Mack' that a local helped them find.
Step Outside the Box
While Ball and Terra Nova both have good plant discovery programs, they aren't always the perfect solution for gardeners. These companies have specific criteria as to what qualifies a plant for their program.
If a plant doesn't fit with them, it doesn't mean all is lost. Many times, specialty nurseries like Woodlanders will be more interested in special varieties than a large company. Other outlets to try include native plant societies and local botanical gardens.
For gardeners who might be interested in discovering new plants themselves, Bobby encourages them to step outside the boundaries.
"We've been too restrictive in the past about what
textbooks say will grow where," he said. "This is a new
renaissance in gardening. Be creative and energetic about trying to grow new plants in your area. Even if the books say it won't grow there, sometimes it's worth a shot."
Plant hunter may sound like an exotic term, but Bobby says it can define anyone interested in gardening.
"A plant hunter isn't necessarily just someone who goes
on horseback or rides on a yacht in China looking for plants," Bobby says. "There are many plants in your backyard. If you have an interest and an eye for it, then it might have merit."