Plant Breeding Changes Through The Years

Steve Jones of Green Fuse Botanicals

As a plant breeder, Steve Jones has been around the block a few times. His career spans more than 20 years, during which time he established the Bodger Botanical program at Bodger Seeds. When Bodger dissolved, Jones purchased the program, renaming it Green Fuse Botanicals.

As CEO of Green Fuse, Jones collaborates with independent plant breeders from around the world to bring innovative plant varieties to the market. He introduced the well-known Salvia Cathedral series, Petunia Blanket series and Ipomoea ‘Sweet Georgia.’

Jones has seen many changes in how plants are developed during the course of his career, and he recently shared his thoughts with Greenhouse Grower.

GG: How has plant breeding changed during your career in the industry?

SJ: I have been working in plant breeding for more than 20 years. I see many, many changes large and small that would take far too long to talk about. There are four I find most interesting, however:

Clonal product and inter-species breeding. This has allowed for rapid, low-cost breeding by many independent breeders and the ability to achieve new colors and plant habits in a plethora of genera. Seed production was much more complicated. Much more breeding was required to get a trait to come true. When we were doing open-pollinated production of French marigolds, for example, we would go to F4 or F5 before we’d get what we would actually release. It could take four or five years. With clonal propagation, when the first generation pops up, you can say, “I want that one right there,” and take cuttings off of it. It makes the world flat with regards to breeding.

Increased grower efficiencies. Growers are using seeds and cuttings much more efficiently. Shrink is smaller, the demand for quality inputs from suppliers is more disciplined and costs have dropped.

Rapid dissemination of information. It used to be that a breeding company had a few years after a new introduction to build a following. Now sales information is analyzed pretty quickly, with competitors bringing on comparable varieties within two to three years.

Tightening of government regulations and plant import restrictions. Many developing countries are very protective of their native flora as a resource for gene mining. Plant import restrictions are making it nearly impossible for breeders in Australia and New Zealand to import new breeding material. For the past five years there has been a similar trend in Europe and Japan. Although the United States is still a fairly easy place to import plants, the bias is for more restrictions, not less.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the comity within the industry — even with competitors.

GG: Is it more important for breeders to focus on traits that make production easier for growers or on traits that attract consumers?

SJ: Growers are the “eyes” of the gardening public. If a grower fancies a plant, it will reach the consumer. I think it will always be human nature to go for the flash over the function. If a grower can supply flash and figure out how to grow it, that gives them an advantage. If I must make a choice, the easiest sale is the most beautiful plant, but no grower will buy a problem plant twice.

GG: Some say there are less ground-breaking introductions in recent years as breeders fill gaps in their existing series. Are we missing opportunities?

SJ: I sure don’t see less ground-breaking; I see the opposite. Staple crops, like calibrachoa and verbena, have gone from problem crops to reliable plants that are easy to grow.

For example, in the last four years there’s been a huge sea change in terms of the ease of growing calibrachoa. It used to be a problem crop. That really came about because of intense breeding efforts. So when people say there’s nothing new, I think they’re really missing the point. We may see a light introduction year from time to time, but the trend is that there are many more amazing new genera coming to market.

GG: Annuals have always been the bread and butter for breeders. Should breeders be focusing on other areas or should they focus on what we know works?

SJ: I think the lines between annual, houseplant, perennial, etc. are blurring. What’s a red leaf banana tree? An annual? Well, sort of. Breeders are focused on two things: existing major classes and something really different that can be profitable — at least until it is copied.

GG: How good is this industry at marketing to consumers? How has this changed over the years, and what can breeders and growers do better?

SJ: If I want to buy a loaf of bread, I can walk in the supermarket and find that brand with relative ease, week after week, month after month. To find the same plant that did so well for me last month or last year for the gardening public, however, is nearly impossible. And I don’t see that changing in the next few years.

Our best marketing remains well-grown plants in attractive containers. Perhaps in the future, with information becoming cheaper and search costs dropping, consumers can be more vocal about their preferences at a time when our industry can make it easier for our customers to find what they are looking for.

GG: What are some of the ways the industry can help consumers succeed so they will continue to be gardeners?

SJ: Easier access to plant culture. Easier access to solutions to gardening problems. Plants that better reflect our customers’ changing lifestyles. For instance, there will certainly be more phone access at retail, where people can scan a tag and get that plant’s cultural information. We’re working toward that right now. That will be a big breakthrough for growers to pass on to their customers.

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