Plant Breeder Kelly Norris: Breeders Must Be Champions Of New Genera

Kelly Norris Independent Breeder/Author Owner, Rainbow Iris Farm Horticulture Manager, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Kelly Norris
Independent Breeder/Author
Owner, Rainbow Iris Farm
Horticulture Manager, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Kelly Norris is currently the horticulture director at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and he holds two degrees (B.S., M.S.) in horticulture from Iowa State University.

Norris has been part of the industry since age 15, when he talked his parents into buying a nursery and moving it from Texas to their family farm in Iowa. As the owner of Rainbow Iris Farm, he started breeding irises 12 years ago and continues to focus on breeding independently, as well as in the new breeding program at the botanical garden.

GG: As a young breeder, what direction do you feel breeding is headed?
Norris: I feel there are two kinds of plant breeders entering the market today. There are those coming of out graduate school looking for jobs in the industry (which aren’t plentiful) and end up toiling away with petunias and commodity crops. I feel for them.

Then there are those of us in “private practice” (a.k.a. unpaid hobby breeding) or working for public institutions that don’t have to live by the rules. We take risks, run into road blocks (like lack of funding or time), and fail more than we succeed. But we are passionate and believe in what we encounter in the public — an earnest desire to be fascinated by plants and to want something different than what they so often encounter. It’s this class of breeders that stand the chance of advancing the cause of plant breeding because they are champions of new genera (think: who knew what a heuchera was 20 years ago or an angelonia 15 years ago?)

GG: What crops do you feel will be relevant and important over the next 30 years?
Norris: The kinds of crops that we view as niche and specialty today. This kind of crystal ball stuff is fun to read about, but the reality is that the marketplace is going to change drastically, which is a boring, predictable story line. People who think we’ll just ride out the current condition are espousing fiction. And frankly, we struggle with a paradox  — we are an industry of incredibly talented, inventive people, who, when put together, struggle with how to embrace innovation. How do we move forward and truly do innovative work? Innovation by definition assumes that there will always be a lack of it — it’s a circumstance of contrast. But how do we move the dial in favor of new varieties (and new genera) that not only offer creative landscaping solutions, but enhance biodiversity in our landscapes? How do we capitalize on the wow factor that we do such a great job of siphoning off by flooding the market with poorly branded, “me-too” genetics after gamechanging varieties have already changed the game? #soapbox #end

GG: Will the fervor for all new varieties continue in the industry or will breeders begin to focus on filling consumers’ needs?
Norris: Golly, I hope so! To me, an industry that focuses on product-innovation geared towards the supply chain (i.e. plants that fit tidily on shipping racks) doesn’t have much regard for its end user or can’t truly push itself in innovative directions because it’s not willing to answer hard questions about how to really make innovation happen. And we wonder why sales are flat industry-wide for almost 12 years running? How we do business is one thing (and another lecture for another day), but the products we sell are entirely another. That’s not to say that many breeders don’t focus on the end needs of the consumer, but overall, our industry runs a deficit when it comes to thinking through the supply chain, from innovation to consumption.

GG: How will breeders address needs to reduce chemicals by increasing crop resistance to pests and diseases? How far away is this technology?
Norris: The idea of increasing disease resistance, etc. harkens back to a very old school idea —diversity. So many of our ornamental genera are founded on a relatively minimal subset of their gene pools. To use bearded irises as an example, four species are found within more than 80 percent of the varieties produced in record time (some 30,000-plus cultivars).

GG: What direction is your breeding career taking? What other crop areas are you interested in? 
Norris: I’m driven by a passion for improving ornamental crops that change people’s relationship with their environment. The bottom line is that we have to build more biodiverse landscapes. The opportunities are endless and abundant.

GG: How long have you been a breeder or studying to be a breeder?
Norris: I made my first cross when I was probably 10 years old between two petunias growing in a container on my family’s patio. It’s all gone downhill from there. I started breeding irises about 12 years ago, have introduced one variety of my own and have represented half a dozen others to the collector’s market through my nursery Rainbow Iris Farm. My coursework in college largely focused on plant breeding and genetics and continued into my graduate studies, too.

GG: What crops do you manage?
Norris: The breeding program here at the Botanical Garden is very much in its infancy (just like the institution I work for). We are evaluating our first generation of various gesneriads (mostly Sinningia and Streptocarpus so far) and Nicotiana, with ongoing forays into Passiflora and Fuchsia. As our outdoor gardens and collections expand, I anticipate additional genera to follow suit.

GG: What is one outlandish prediction you have for floriculture in the next 30 years?
Norris: Gardening will be something a majority of the population does, because it’s such a relevant part of cultural existence. Find me in 30 years — it may not be so outlandish then.

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