The UConn Perennial Plant Conference, held March 5th 2015 at the Storrs campus, had a number of inspiring topics and speakers. There is always a new plant I have got to try (Phlox ‘Minnie Pearl), a new perspective on gardening (I don’t have time for namby pambies either) and perceptions to ponder (what the public thinks about local vs. organic vs. eco-friendly).
A session that I found quite interesting was Dr. Mark Brand’s talk on UConn’s plant introductions. I was familiar with a few of them but had no idea how many plants the dedicated and passionate breeders at the College had created or discovered, evaluated and released over the years.
As a horticulturist at Old Sturbridge Village, I remember planting the parking lot beds with basil ’Dark Opal’ and surrounding the lovely, purple-leaved plants with pink zinnias. Little did I realize that this 1962 All America Selections winner was bred by UConn’s John Scarchuk. He and other researchers at the Lee Farm in Coventry, CT worked with ornamental basils, peppers, lettuce and squash.
Dr. Sidney Waxman’s work was primarily focused on dwarf conifers which he grew from witches brooms. These are dense masses of shoots, caused by a disease or other irregularity, emerging from a single growing point and typically found on woody plants. Dr. Waxman was known to shoot these down from trees and propagate the stems. For almost 4 decades he planted and evaluated countless plants and introduced perhaps 40 to 45 cultivars. Much work was done with eastern white pine and we have Dr. Waxman to thank for cultivars such as ‘Coney Island’, ‘Blue Shag’, ‘Sea Urchin’ and ‘Old Softie’ along with larch ‘Varied Directions’ and Japanese umbrella pine ‘Wintergreen’. See the link for an article by Dr. Waxman on 4 of his selections.
Determination and vision for a more compact and floriferous Madagascar periwinkle drove Dr. Ronald Parker to plant 30,000 seeds each year for more than a decade. This massive effort resulted in four All America Selection winners that were featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. ‘Pretty in Pink’ (AAS 1991), ‘Pretty in Rose’ (AAS 1991), ‘Pretty in White’ (AAS 1992) and ‘Parasol’ (AAS 1991) brought these plants into the contemporary bedding plant world and were the largest royalty earning invention at UConn. Dr. Parker was also responsible for ‘Pacifica Red’ and the Tropicana series and began the quest for a yellow impatiens and developed the Sea Shell series.
Dr. Gustav Mehlquist created UConn White Sim No. 1 using irradiation in 1962. This white carnation cultivar was extremely well received and at one time it accounted for about 75% of the white carnations produced worldwide. It is likely that its genes remain in the white carnations grown for cut flowers today.
A passion for rhododendrons led to Dr. Mehlquist’s quest for a yellow, cold hardy rhododendron. He worked for almost 25 years using 4 main species of rhododendrons and introduced ‘White Peter’, ‘Connecticut Yankee’ and ‘Firestorm’ as well as the Raise the Roof series (that Dr. Brand worked on as well) which was featured on the cover of a HortScience Journal issue. The Raise the Roof series was named, by the way, at a past Perennial Plant Conference while tuning into a UConn basketball game. ‘March Madness’ and ‘Slam Dunk’ are already available through Monrovia Nursery (www.monrovia.com) but yellow ‘Buzzer Beater’, ‘Huskymania’ and ‘Hoopla’ will be offered in the future.
Buzzer Beater yellow rhododendron, photo by Mark Brand, UConn
Throughout the 1980’s, Dr. Mark Bridgen was breeding alstromerias for fragrance and cold hardiness. He introduced several cultivars including ‘Sweet Laura’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty. I planted ‘Sweet Laura’ last year and this winter will sure be a test for her cold tolerance. I suspect that more winter mulching and a milder winter might be required for survival in my yard.
Dr. Brand introduced one of my favorite trees that is presently growing in my white garden, Carolina silverbell ‘UConn Wedding Bells’ (Halesia carolina) which is covered with lovely white bell-shaped flowers each spring. He also bred ‘Ruby Ribbons’, a fantastic blue-green ornamental grass (Panicum virgatum) that turns burgundy as the season progresses. Combine it with rosy autumn flowering sedums and white asters.
Dr. Mark Brand with Ruby Ribbons, UConn photo
While butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.) are not considered an invasive plant in Connecticut, they are in more southern states where the plants have time to set seed. Dr. Brand, along with UConn graduate student, Bill Smith while looking at seedlings produced by EMS mutation introduced ‘Summer Skies’, a variegated buddleia and have since evaluated a number of dwarf forms for their growing habits and seed producing abilities, with the goal being few or no seeds. Some of these new dwarf butterfly bushes will be introduced as part of the Better Homes and Gardens Program through Walmart in 2016.
Summer Skies variegated butterfly bush. Photo by Mark Brand, UConn
Two invasive species in Connecticut, barberry and burning bush have gotten much attention from UConn plant breeders. Dr. Brand for a number of years now has grown and evaluated numerous Japanese barberry cultivars for seed production (how he got those grad students to harvest berries off those prickly plants is beyond me) and come up with several cultivars with nice ornamental foliage and few if any seeds. Dr Yi Li has been working on developing sterile cultivars of burning bush.
Another facet of plant introductions focuses on native shrubs. Dr. Brand has been working with both upright and prostrate forms of aronia for ornamental purposes as well as fruit production. UC166 is a more upright form that may lend itself well to commercial harvesting. Aronia berries have many nutritional qualities including a very high content of antioxidants.
Compact aronia, photo by Mark Brand, UConn
After hearing about ninebark ‘After Midnight’ (Physocarpus opuliolius), which reaches only 4 feet tall, I am definitely digging up ‘Diablo’ which keeps throwing long shoots up into the motion detector only to have my better half chop the bush back so that it never flowers and replacing it with this UConn introduction. Both Dr. Brand and grad student, Bill Smith had a hand in this compact, nearly black and powdery mildew resistant cultivar.
After Midnight ninebark, photo by Mark Brand, UConn
Since Dr. Jessica Lubell joined the UConn Plant Science & Landscape Architecture Department, she has teamed up with Dr. Brand and together they developed viburnum ‘Plum Pudding’ with a delightful purple fall foliage color and are working on a more compact female bayberry which would be great for those of us who love the scent of these native plants with their waxy white berries but don’t have the room for large plants. Dr. Lubell also discovered a lovely variation of our native American hazelnut (Corylus americana). ‘Brave Heart’ has a burgundy splotch on the leaves which fades to a lighter green reminding us that Mother Nature always has a surprise or two up her sleeves. Consider also what other plant breeders worldwide have contributed to our lives – enjoy the fruits of their labors and be grateful.