BenchPress Profile: Susan Stieve

How does the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center help growers?

Currently we have more than 3,100 accessions in our collection that are distributed free of charge to researchers around the world. We have sent our plant material, in the form of seeds or cuttings, to floriculture breeders in the United States and elsewhere.

How many research requests do you get a day? How many non-research requests do you get from home gardeners?

Since we began distributions in 2002 we have distributed almost 2,500 items. Because we do conserve so many beautiful plants here we do receive requests from home gardeners. As it states on the USDA National Plant Germplasm System website, germplasm is available in small quantities for research purposes. If we are unsure of the intended use of the material we will follow up with the requester and help them find alternative sources if it is for home gardening use.

Is the center close to collecting seeds for all species of certain genera?

The center has established good collections of many priority genera that continue to grow. These include rudbeckia (65 percent of possible species) and coreopsis (46 percent). In October, (research assistant) Eric Renze and I traveled over 4,000 miles in 11 days throughout the Southeastern U.S. We collected seeds in eight states and were able to acquire 65 new accessions, including 27 new accessions of rudbeckia, 19 coreopsis, and one lilium. This fall, we are planning to continue collecting in the Pacific Northwest, and I am working on a proposal to collect in Arizona in the fall of 2010.

How does the center store seeds?

We primarily store germplasm in the form of seeds, but we do also maintain some accessions, for example Pelargonium, clonally. We have an approximately 30-foot x 30-foot walk-in seed storage cooler that is maintained at 40°F and 20 percent RH, which are good conditions for medium-term storage of seeds. We also back up all of our accessions at the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.

What’s the most fun part of your job?

There is always something new to work on and learn about every day, whether it is evaluating different insects for their pollinating ability, working to break seed dormancy, developing projects with researchers at The Ohio State University and elsewhere to find answers that will benefit the floriculture industry, working with others to develop bar code and electronic data collection techniques, evaluation germplasm in the collection so we can tell others about the diversity they contain, or lead tours for some of over 300 visitors we have each year.

What’s the most challenging part of it?

One of the best things about the OPGC is the knowledgeable young staff that we have; currently there are 4 full time employees, including myself, and seven undergraduate students. The most challenging part of our work is that there is so much of it! We have a huge task before us…conserve the world’s wealth of herbaceous ornamentals…which is more than a little daunting, and we have a limited budget to work with. Like the readers of Greenhouse Grower, we have a lot to accomplish and only so many hours in a day to get it done.

We are the newest of the 25 USDA-ARS genebanks…many of the others have been in existence for 75 years or more and employ hundreds of people. That said, since we began operations eight years ago we have established an excellent collection of seed processing equipment, including the Faxitron X-ray, which most other genebanks do not have, and are one of the genebanks most actively using the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) database for maintaining collection information. The OPGC is somewhat at a disadvantage, though, in that other genebanks had established their collections prior to 1992 and have not been as affected by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Which genus’s seeds are the most difficult to obtain? Which species have completely eluded you that you’d like to track down?

One genus we have had particular difficulty collecting is Phlox; the seeds dehisce, or drop off the flower, as soon as they are ripe. So you either have to be there the day it is ripe and ready to harvest, or be there ahead of time, bag the flower head, and return after it has ripened; this isn’t practical if the plant is 1,000 miles away!

What are your goals for the center?

I want to promote the center and its mission to our stakeholders, the floriculture industry, and make everyone aware of what we have accomplished; when anyone thinks of herbaceous ornamentals I would like them to think of the OPGC…new flowers start here! We will have a booth at the OFA Trade Show and I would like to encourage anyone who wants to know more about the OPGC and how our plant material is being used to stop on by in July.

Since there are now large collections of Begonia, Rudbeckia, Viola, Pelargonium, Coreopsis, and other genera to work with another goal is to evaluate and characterize plants in the collection and make that information available to others, either online or in publications, so flower breeders and others will know what genetic diversity we have available.

Develop industry-oriented collaborative research promoting germplasm use.

Continue to grow the OPGC endowment, which is used to pay for undergraduate student interns during the summer.

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