Breeding A Stronger Heuchera

Breeding A Stronger Heuchera

How does one go from a Ph.D. in the evolutionary genetics of butterflies and moths to establishing a well-respected breeding program for heucheras?

“It’s almost an accident,” says Martha Oliver of the career path her husband, Charles, found himself traveling in the 1980s. This near accident took Charles from the genetics of winged things to the genetics of native plants — with a detour in the field of water testing — and can partially be blamed on bees.

While operating a drinking water testing facility in western Pennsylvania, Charles and Martha Oliver were avid gardeners with a deep interest in native plants. The hobby soon pushed the nine-to-five job out of the way. The Primrose Path nursery and mail-order business began in 1984.

“I was just starting into the retail business, building up stock from seed for lots of plants,” Charles says. “I was getting heuchera hybrids out in the garden that didn’t look like anything I had seen before. I thought ‘Here’s a nice new set of plants to offer.'” Chance hybrids have given way to a controlled cross-breeding program for the heucheras, tiarellas, the bigeneric heucherellas, phlox and primulas. Charles’ breeding efforts have resulted in the Marcel LePiniec Award from the North American Rock Garden Society and several other awards for individual plants in Holland and England.

Since the mid 1980s, Charles has introduced more than 80 new plants to the trade. Many of these heucheras and tiarellas have native parentage that is tolerant of the rough climatic conditions of western Pennsylvania. Summers can be dry, and winters are cycles of sudden thaws and freezing rains and temperatures, with little insulating snow cover.

“Plants that do well in our trial gardens tend to do really well in everybody else’s gardens,” Charles says. “Our plants have extra vigor because they’ve survived our conditions. I would never have gotten our heucheras in the Adrian Bloom-designed garden on the OSU Columbus campus to look that gorgeous here.” Another testament to Oliver’s tough-as-nails heucheras: ‘Raspberry Ice’ is planted in full-sun conditions in that new Columbus garden and they are blooming with fervor.

The Olivers have had such success with their breeding program because they have clear-cut goals for their plants. “We think about the habit, vigor, flower size and color, and extending the length of bloom time — all the things that we think would make a perfect plant,” Charles says. “We have a goal in mind, and each plant we put on the market is a step toward that goal. One of the reasons there are so many heucheras coming out is that breeders haven’t reached their goals. People keep breeding something better than what they had before. I suppose after a certain amount of time we’ll get as far as we can go. I don’t think we are there yet.”

The Primrose Path is also working toward breeding heucheras with larger flowers and those whose foliage remains reliably purple throughout the growing season. Some of the genetics Charles draws from are gathered as seed from wild forms in the woods of western Pennsylvania.

“We’re fortunate to be in this place (western Pennsylvania) because there’s a tremendous amount of plant material to work with,” Martha says. The location’s harsh climate gives their varieties an extra dose of hardiness, they believe, that is an important competitive advantage over heucheras and tiarellas bred in the western United States.

“It’s not gene splicing or mad science. It’s just moving pollen with a paint brush from the two best parents,” Martha says. “This is how plant breeders have worked for thousands of years.” Their early crosses with tiarella, it should be noted, are the stock from which nearly all new hybrids have been derived. Charles gives credit to the father of famed British plantsman Adrian Bloom for establishing a foundation of heuchera varieties on which modern heuchera breeding is based.

In Print

The Olivers have just published Heuchera, Tiarella, and Heucherella: A Gardener’s Guide (Batsford, 2006), a book aimed at the sophisticated gardener on the history and genetics of breeding these particular genera, the modern hybrids and how to use them in the garden and in combinations. For more information, visit www.theprimrosepath.com.

“Heucheras were first bred for the cut flower market, and Alan Bloom started that,” Charles says. “What Bloom did was to go through the wild types early on to choose nice plants with good flowers. This gave us a very nice basic stock of green-leaved plants with good flowers and stem lengths as a starting point.” From there, Blooms of Bressingham, the Bloom family nursery, introduced one of the first purple- or bronzed-leaved varieties, ‘Palace Purple.’ “All the modern breeding started when ‘Palace Purple’ was crossed into the green-leaved varieties in the 1980s. All the best heucheras today have come from that basic Blooms stock,” says Charles.

The Primrose Path is now aligned with Blooms of Bressingham to market several of its plant introductions. “We’ve tried a number of other agents, and Blooms is by far the best of them, I think,” Charles says. “They do the basics of marketing very well.”

Leave a Reply

More From Varieties...
Terra Nova Shipping Box

July 20, 2017

Terra Nova Nurseries, Dümmen Orange to Partner on Unrooted Cuttings Production

Terra Nova Nurseries has contracted with Dümmen Orange to produce unrooted cuttings (URCs) from Terra Nova private stock located at Dümmen Orange’s Central America facilities. The URCs will fulfill orders in North America and Europe.

Read More

July 20, 2017

New Perennials, Trial Gardens, and Merchandising Were Highlights of Darwin Perennials Day 2017

Darwin Perennials Day has steadily become one of the must-attend perennial events of the summer. This year, even the weather cooperated.

Read More
2018 Ball Seed Catalog

July 17, 2017

Ball Seed’s 2018 New Varieties Catalog Now Available

The expanded guide includes breakthrough breeding from Ball in annuals, perennials, vegetables, potted plants, and more.

Read More
Latest Stories
Terra Nova Shipping Box

July 20, 2017

Terra Nova Nurseries, Dümmen Orange to Partner on Unroo…

Terra Nova Nurseries has contracted with Dümmen Orange to produce unrooted cuttings (URCs) from Terra Nova private stock located at Dümmen Orange’s Central America facilities. The URCs will fulfill orders in North America and Europe.

Read More

July 20, 2017

New Perennials, Trial Gardens, and Merchandising Were H…

Darwin Perennials Day has steadily become one of the must-attend perennial events of the summer. This year, even the weather cooperated.

Read More
2018 Ball Seed Catalog

July 17, 2017

Ball Seed’s 2018 New Varieties Catalog Now Available

The expanded guide includes breakthrough breeding from Ball in annuals, perennials, vegetables, potted plants, and more.

Read More
Pleasant View Open House

July 16, 2017

Pleasant View Gardens, D.S. Cole Growers Hosting Open H…

The event gives horticulture industry professionals the chance to check out nearly 80 new introductions from Proven Winners, as well as Pleasant View’s new Savor Edibles & Fragrants line.

Read More
All American Selections

July 12, 2017

All-America Selections Celebrates Milestone Anniversary…

Coinciding with its 85th anniversary celebration, AAS is hosting an open house at its new offices, and has also released its annual report.

Read More

July 8, 2017

Plant Patent Law: Protecting the Variety Pipeline

Breeders call for better cooperation in protecting intellectual property while considering how stricter laws and expensive patents could impact the future of innovation.

Read More
Calibrachoa ‘Superbells Holy Moly!’ (Proven Winners)

July 8, 2017

Are Utility Patents Tying Up Innovation With Litigation…

The opportunities for innovation in plant breeding could be greatly advanced by creating an industry-led patent licensing platform.

Read More

July 8, 2017

Fleuroselect and CIOPORA Offer Organizational Leadershi…

Learn why breeders feel these organizations should be emulated in an industry-led initiative to protect plant breeding efforts.

Read More
Thalictrum Nimbus White (Terra Nova Nurseries)

June 30, 2017

Kelly Norris Dishes on New Plants, Going to Seed, and B…

From woody perennials to genetically modified petunias, Kelly Norris gives his take on what turned out to be a busy spring.

Read More
Jim Devereux, Green Fuse Botanicals

June 24, 2017

Green Fuse Botanicals New Vice President is Focused on …

Jim Devereux, who will oversee production, sales, and marketing for Green Fuse, says he hopes to bring genetics to the market that break from traditional production methods for finished growers.

Read More
Ushio Sakazaki feature

June 22, 2017

Japanese Breeder Ushio Sakazaki Wins Medal of Excellenc…

From Supertunias to Superbells, this innovative Japanese breeder has used wild genetics to create game-changing plants that help consumers reconnect with the beauty of nature.

Read More
CallaFornia Red

June 20, 2017

Dümmen Orange Enters Calla Market With Acquisition of G…

Golden State will continue to supply the market through September 2018, at which time Dümmen Orange will assume supply and delivery of much of Golden State’s product line.

Read More
Plantpeddler Variety Day

June 14, 2017

Plantpeddler Hosting Variety Day on Aug. 4 in Cresco, I…

The free event will allow attendees to tour Plantpeddler’s trial gardens, which include more than 1,200 varieties of vegetative annuals displayed in large containers, baskets, window boxes, and beds.

Read More
Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers

June 9, 2017

New Head Grower at Emerald Coast Growers is Excited abo…

Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers’ new general manager/head grower for its Lancaster, PA, location, talks about his favorite perennials, the advantages of growing in Pennsylvania, and his future hopes for his career.

Read More
Petunia 'Amore Mio' (Danziger)

June 8, 2017

AmericanHort Update on Genetically Engineered Petunias

AmericanHort is actively assisting affected plant breeders, distributors, growers, and retailers as the genetically modified petunia regulatory response continues. Since the last update, there have been several changes to the list of petunias confirmed or suspected of being genetically engineered and therefore unauthorized to be imported or sold. Also, the list of recognized laboratories for petunia variety confirmation testing has expanded. Most importantly, petunia varieties on the USDA-APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) list require an APHIS Form 2000 for importation. APHIS also began requiring that any Petunia spp. Shipments, not including regulated GE varieties, must be accompanied by a list of variety names. This resulted in some inspection delays at the USDA-APHIS plant inspection station in Atlanta over the past two weeks. In response, AmericanHort has negotiated a more flexible approach with APHIS, and new guidance has just been posted for importing Petunia plants, cuttings, or seed. The new guidance allows […]

Read More
Bailey Expo

June 8, 2017

Bailey Nurseries Expo to Take Place in Late July in Min…

This year’s expo will focus on bridging the gap with Millennials and non-gardeners through creative marketing, engaging in-store displays, and heightened customer service.

Read More
Scaevola Mix from Suntory

June 6, 2017

How Was Your Spring? Let Us Know by Taking Greenhouse G…

Please take a few minutes to answer Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 Spring Recap Survey. The deadline for completing the survey is June 20.

Read More
Eason Horticultural Resources Hot New Perennials Booklet

June 6, 2017

Eason Horticultural Resources Releases New Perennials B…

“Hot New Perennials for 2018” is a compilation of information shared with Eason from a broad range of perennial young plant producers, breeding companies, and breeder representatives.

Read More