BREEDING PLANTS: WHERE OUR NEW & IMPROVED PLANT MATERIALS COME FROM!

We are enjoying some remarkable mild summer temperatures and have even been blessed with periodic rains.  As a result most of our plant materials are looking great and we are enjoying some nice vegetable harvests and beautiful flowers.  You can be planting for fall as you enjoy your current plantings and keep a close eye on your watering to keep your plants properly hydrated between rains.

Earlier this week I made a quick trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for CARET, the Council on Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching.  The trip included a couple of stops that got me thinking about where our new and improved plant materials come from.  The first stop was the JC Ralston Arboretum which was started by the famous modern plant explorer who grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle and graduated from Oklahoma State University.  He had few trees and shrubs in the panhandle but loved them and longed for more.  He led plant expeditions around the world as a professor at North Carolina State University and discovered many new plants he and his students brought back to the United States where many were introduced into the American nursery trade.  There have been many other great plant explorers like Alfred Graf of Roehrs Nurseries, John Creech of the U. S. National Arboretum and many more with the United States Department of Agriculture.  We have two prominent active explorers in our state today including Steve Bieberich of Sunshine Nursery in Clinton and Steve Owens of Bustani Farms in Stillwater.  These explorers find new plant varieties and genetics from all over the world to enrich our plant choices and to expand cold hardiness, drought tolerance and other important plant traits.

The second stop was the plant breeding program at North Carolina State University.  Breeding of the most significant agronomy or field crops is done by the big seed companies and our land grant colleges.  The breeding of specialty crops is done by smaller seed companies, land grant universities and even a few amateur breeders.  This is a very important process to stay ahead of diseases, viruses, pest problems and environmental conditions. North Carolina State University has been a national leader in breeding sweet potatoes for the food market that resist wireworms, have thicker skins for digging and storage and better uniformity for harvesting and marketing.  Sweet potatoes are the seventh most important crop to deliver nutrition and calories to humans in the world and this one breeding program evaluates 65,000 new seedlings from breeding crosses each year in the quest for a better sweet potato.  Many of these selections did not prove out for food production but some have been introduced as the beautiful ornamental varieties we use in our summer landscapes that explode with new multicolor, chartreuse or burgundy foliage.  North Carolina also has important breeding programs in cucumbers, stevia for sweeteners, redbud trees, blackberries, gourds, cantaloupe, watermelon, tomatoes, azaleas, peaches and raspberries.

Closer to home, the University of Arkansas features a spinach breeding program that achieved mildew resistance and that is now used on most every American spinach variety and most spinach around the world.  Dr. John Clark has led the nation for decades in breeding blackberries and his varieties are built on the thirty-three years of work by his predecessor, Dr. James Moore. Their work has led to over a dozen varieties now grown on every continent except Antarctica as these innovations have extended the harvest season and dramatically expanded the geography for blackberry production.  Arkansas has also been a leader in raspberry, blueberry, peach and strawberry breeding and plant introductions.  Here in Oklahoma our most famous plant breeding program is by the Oklahoma State University wheat team lead by Dr. Brett Carver.  Over half the wheat grown in our state the last few years are Cowboy varieties bred by Dr. Carver and his amazing wheat team which has introduced over twenty varieties well suited for production in the plains states and is now grown on over three million acres just in Oklahoma each year.

Oklahoma horticulture breeding is led by two former Oklahoma State University professors who have stayed active breeding since their college days.  Dr. Jim Motes is one of the top hot pepper breeders in the world and his varieties are grown on many acres in the Southwest including thousands of acres at the Hinton/Hydro area for use as food additives, as a safe replacement for food dye and for pepper spray personal protection and deer repellents.  Very brave people actually eat some of his hot peppers.  Dr. Carl Whitcomb has several breeding programs underway at Lacebark in Stillwater including hardy hibiscus, desert willow, lacebark elms, river birch and his many amazing varieties of crapemyrtles.  You can find many of his pink, raspberry and red crapemyrtles at nurseries and garden centers all across the southern half of the United States and his breeding fields outside Stillwater are breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year.

It is important we use and save native and heirloom plants but these plant discoveries, introductions and new plant breeding are critical to expand our plant choices, to extend flowering and fruiting seasons, to deal with wetter or drier locations and to achieve insect, virus and disease resistance.  There are lots of great stories about plant explorers and breeders available in books or magazine articles so you can learn more about the rest of the story on your favorite plants.

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