Thursday, July 17, 2014

Accidental petunia gene theft.

I think I'm accidentally stealing patented genes. Of a petunia all things, too!

I always say that I hate petunias... it is a classic case of graduate school research induced loathing. Spend enough time doing research on them, and you'd hate them too. But I do have a few in my garden every year. Not the normal ones -- I grow a raggedy, sprawling mess, descended from hybrids between Petunia axillaris, P. exerta, with a wee bit of P. integrifolia for good measure.
They're nothing like the neat, tidy little moundy commercial varieties, but I like them, especially because they're powerfully fragrant. Every year I sniff them all, note the most fragrant ones, and save seed from them for the next year, along with some seeds of anything else that I like particularly well. This isn't a breeding project aimed at commercial release, just a pleasant side note in my garden.

But this year I'm afraid they've crossed into legally murky territory... Because of this:
This is one of my plants this year... and honestly, I kind of love it. The color is cool, but more importantly, it is by far the best and strongest scented petunia I've grown, even during the day (most petunias are most fragrant at night). But the problem? It looks to me a lot like the variety 'Dusty Rose'. Which the couple next door grew in my old neighborhood. I'm fairly confident that this color pattern popped up because a bee or moth carried pollen from their 'Dusty Rose' to my rambly, weedy, petunia patch.

Which normally wouldn't be a problem. But 'Dusty Rose' is protected by a utility patent.

Most patented plants have "Plant Variety Protection" -- which means you aren't allowed to clone the variety (cuttings, division, tissue culture) without permission of the patent holder. So you can't take cuttings of a 'Knock-Out' rose without permission of the breeder. But, you can collect seeds from your 'Knock-Out' and grow them and even, if you wanted to, get your own plant variety protection on the seedlings.

But increasingly new annuals like petunias are being protected with utility patents, which prohibit not just unauthorized cuttings of the plant, but any unauthorized breeding with the plant. So you can't save seeds, or pollinate another plant, or, you know, let the neighborhood bees slip some pollen into your population. This is famously the type of patent used on genetically engineered varieties of corn and soy beans, but is now increasingly being used for conventionally bred varieties of petunias, impatiens, even lettuce.

I'm pretty sure that the patent holder, (Ball Horticultural in this case, though all the big breeding companies are using these types of patents now) owns the rights to this petunia... To be sure, they almost certainly don't care as long as I don't try to make money off this seedling or any of its siblings. It wouldn't be worth their time or money (or bad PR) to sue me for a silly seedling in my garden.

But still... I kind of don't like feeling like a company has ownership over my very personal weedy, rambling, fragrant, petunia patch. I could yank out the individuals with the tell-tale yellow centers to the flowers, but that wouldn't actually guarantee that the patented genes aren't in other individuals in the population. And it IS kinda pretty. So I think I'll keep it. Hopefully I don't get sued.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hardy artichokes!

Is it just me, or does "Hardy Artichokes!" sound like it should be a folksy expletive?  Hardy artichokes Batman! Well. Anyway.
Artichokes are delicious but rather annoying to grow. They're perennials, but not big fans of hot summers, and not very winter hardy either. Which is why 99% of the commercial production is in cool summer parts of California. You can also grow them as an annual, but that is sort of a pain, as you have to make sure you give the seedlings a dose of cold temperatures when they're young to ensure they flower. More work than I'm really willing to do, particularly in the already insanely busy period if early spring.
What the world needs (and by "the world" I mean, of course, me) is a fully zone 5 hardy artichoke you can just plant once and then harvest from every year.
So I decided to make one. It started several years ago when I requested seed from every variety of artichoke (and cardoon, which is the same plant, just selected for tasty leaf stalks instead of flower buds) I could get, and planted them in the warmest, most sheltered spot in my old garden, along the South wall of my very poorly insulated house.
Baby artichoke plant huddling for warmth by the south wall of my old house
As luck would have it, that first winter was incredibly mild, and though most of the plants died, a few -- the most cold hardy -- survived!

It's alive! Despite appearance to the contrary.
These artichoke plants look rather rough when they first emerged that spring, but they were alive, so I greeted them with joy, in all their mushy weird-looking glory.

If you don't eat the artichoke, it turns into this. 
They flowered that summer, and I let the bees cross pollinate all my toughest survivors, collected seeds, and sowed out another generation. The next winter came, and my little babies faced -17 degrees F (-27 C) and...

Two survived! Two! Yay! Then this past winter came, and apparently all the Pure Michigan ads trying to lure tourists to this fair state worked, because the polar vortex came for a couple week vacation, causing temperatures to drop to -24 F (-31 C), and for a full week temps barely got above 0 F (-17 C)... I figured for sure my "hardy" plants were goners.

But gone they most certainly aren't! BOTH of them pulled through, and there you have wee little artichokes just beginning to develop! Zone 5 hardy artichokes, baby!

Now, I must confess that the artichokes themselves are quite small. I've got quite a bit more work to do on these to get them as big and beefy as the regular tender 'chokes, but I'm still quite euphoric. I've cleared the biggest hurdle, the rest will be easy, if a bit time consuming.

In other seemingly good news, this spring I also had two plants from my project to try and breed zone 5 hardy perennial kale survive the winter as well!

Then the groundhogs found them. Grrr... Chicken wire fence is now in place. Hopefully they'll recover. Have I mentioned that I hate groundhogs? And deer? And rabbits? And squirrels? And... well, honestly, most herbivorous mammals?

Anyway, cold climate artichoke lovers, rejoice! Hardiness has arrived! Unless you live in zone 4. Or 3. In which case... sorry about your luck. I've gotten them to 5. You'll have to take it from here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

When in doubt... wear snapdragon earrings

For those of you who didn't know already:

Snapdragon flowers will clip to your earlobes like earrings.

You are welcome.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Oh no, Miss!

The title of this post doesn't make any sense... I know. But that is what I always think when I look at the flowers of one of my newest plant obsessions: Ononis.

Ononis is a European genus, going by the common name of rest harrow because the thick roots were strong enough to stop a plow going through the soil back when plows were powered by horses rather than diesel. These plants are, as that name implies, as tough as nails. They laugh at drought and have been equally at home this summer which has been insanely cool and rainy here in Michigan (In June we had almost TWICE the normal amount of rainfall). And, so far, despite a rash of obnoxious deer, rabbits, and (worst of all...) groundhogs, nothing nibbled on my plants in the garden.

And they are gorgeous. At least they are if you, like me, are obsessed with the unique form of flowers in the pea family.
This, the first of the genus I've grown, came from seed that was supposed to be Ononis rotundifolia, but I'm pretty sure it is actually Ononis repens. In any case, I think it is gorgeous. The delicate, intricate form of the flowers, a wonderful shade of clear pink, the veining on the petals... the flowers are, admittedly, a bit on the small side, but I can live with that.

New for me is Ononis natrix. I grew it from seed this year, and in just a few months it has formed a happy, sizable plant, has been pumping out these lovely yellow flowers since mid-June, and shows every sign of keeping it up the rest of the summer. The form isn't quite as nice as O. repens, but the flowers are significantly larger.

I'm also growing O. cenisia and O. spinosa... Neither have flowered yet. O. spinosa has, as the name implies, some pretty vicious spines, so I'm not in love with it so far, but we'll see if the flowers win me over. O. cenisia has been by far the slowest growing of the lot, but again, we'll see what I think when it blooms.

I have, of course, been cross pollinating them... hybrids between pink and yellow flowers usually give you all sorts of lovely oranges and scarlet, and I'll be breeding for bigger, more profuse flowers while I'm at it. If, of course, they consent to make babies together. Fingers crossed!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The latest version of a crazy project...

This is flowering in my garden right now...

What is it? Well... it started out like this:
Regular old Plantago major, aka plantain, aka, everyone's favorite weed.

Starting with some exisiting cool forms, I made this, which I call 'Purple Perversion' because it is purple and twisted, and you'd have to be a little perverted to grow it because it is, after all, a weed. Even if a purple frilly one.

Now... the latest edition! The flower spikes have been transformed into these crazy cool thingies that I REALLY like. Probably most people still wouldn't grow it because, you know, people have this whole thing about not wanting to plant weeds, but I think it is awesome. (And I bet they'd make awesome, long lived cut flowers.)

What say you? Would you grow it?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Playing with pelargoniums

I play with a lot of different breeding projects. Some of them are more-or-less sane, reasonable ideas that I think will be successful and valuable for gardens... And then there are the crazy things I try on the off chance they'll turn into something cool. I do a lot of those. Mostly because they are really fun, and because, well, why not? It takes hardly any time to splash a little pollen around and see what happens. If those initial forays turn out well, I can forward to try and breed something nice, and if not I'm not out much.

Currently, one of the odd-ball, probably-won't-work projects that I'm having fun with is breeding pelargonium. Not with zonal pelargoniums. They're kinda boring.

And no, not regals like these either, though they are gorgeous. I'd serious consider it, but the brilliant minds are Garden Genetics are already doing amazing things with them, (along with a lot of other cool stuff – you've gotta check out their blog where they post about all sorts of exciting projects) so I'll just wait (not very patiently) for their work to become commercially available.

No, I'm playing with a handful of rather obscure species that have caught my eye for various reasons.

P. caffrum has beautiful ferny leaves:
And, when it flowers (mine hasn't yet – but soon, I hope!) the flowers should by crazy fringed like this:
(photo from

P. pulverulentum's flowers aren't nearly as exciting looking, but they do boast a really wonderful fragrance.

Both of these, along with a few others I'm growing, have tuberous roots and go dormant in the winter – which should be perfect! Winter dormant plants are easy to over winter in a garage or the like, unlike the bulk of the really cool species pelargoniums which go dormant in the summer, which isn't so easy to work into a climate like mine.

I'm also growing some odd-ball hybrids like this 'Arden' which... just love those colors on the flowers!

And of course I had to have P. sidoides, which has these amazing dark flowers over a neat mound of lovely silver leaves and is quite simply one of my most favorite plants of all time. This form is a more purpley-wine color than redder forms I've grown in the past, and seems to flower more heavily as well.

I ordered this rambling, irregular collection of plants from the wonderful nursery Geraniaceae ( (which you really MUST check out. Lovely, amazing stuff) and I thought, well, I'll just splash pollen around with a liberal hand and see what happens. I didn't really expect to get too much, figured the species would be too dissimilar to hybridize.

But, just the other day I noticed a few seed pods starting to develop! Happy dance!!!

So stay tuned... in a few years maybe I'll have crazy fringed fragrant flowers in a range of colors and... who knows what else! Or maybe none of the seed will germinate, and if they do the hybrids will be ugly and sterile. Or maybe something totally unexpected will happen. You can never really tell with plant breeding... and that's half the fun. Maybe more than half.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Declines in Monarch butterflies: A problem you can do something about

When I read this article, Habitat loss on breeding grounds cause of monarch decline my first response was "Hurray!"

Not because I hate butterflies. But because the researchers found that the problem with monarchs is here in the US where they feed and breed, NOT in Mexico where they congregate and overwinter. Which is good news because that means that I, and all of you who live in Monarch territory, can DO something about it. Monarchs are declining because there has been a 21% decline in the amount of milkweed for them to feed on since 1995. You can help by planting milkweed. That's pretty simple. Much simpler than the high unemployment, drug wars, and lack of opportunity that bedevil efforts to preserve overwintering habitat in Mexico.

So plant some milkweed. And, while you are at it, plants lots of OTHER things. Because monarchs are far from the only fascinating animal that is suffering the results of extensive habitat loss, even if they get a disproportionate amount of coverage. The best way to support the widest possible range of insects and other animals in your garden is to grow as wide as possible a range of plants. Especially if they are different from the plants your neighbors have in their gardens! Then follow that up by not using any insecticides on your plants.