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...
Pepper-Mexican-Sunset

February 19, 2018

All-America Selections Names Latest Variety Winner, Announces New Display Gardens and Judges

All-America Selections (AAS), the 85-year-young non-profit plant trialing organization, had a very busy month of January.

Read More

February 6, 2018

20 Trends That Dominated at TPIE

If you're looking to stay on top of the current trends to stay ahead of the competition and increase value to your clients by helping them stay at the forefront of their industry, check out some of the new products and ideas we saw trending at TPIE this year.

Read More

February 4, 2018

2017 University of Wisconsin Field Trial Results

Check out the 2017 field trials results for the University of Wisconsin's West Madison Ag Research Station display gardens in Verona, WI.

Read More
Latest Stories
Pepper-Mexican-Sunset

February 19, 2018

All-America Selections Names Latest Variety Winner, Ann…

All-America Selections (AAS), the 85-year-young non-profit plant trialing organization, had a very busy month of January.

Read More

February 6, 2018

20 Trends That Dominated at TPIE

If you're looking to stay on top of the current trends to stay ahead of the competition and increase value to your clients by helping them stay at the forefront of their industry, check out some of the new products and ideas we saw trending at TPIE this year.

Read More

February 4, 2018

2017 University of Wisconsin Field Trial Results

Check out the 2017 field trials results for the University of Wisconsin's West Madison Ag Research Station display gardens in Verona, WI.

Read More

February 2, 2018

2017 Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden Field Trials…

Check out the 2017 field trials results for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Ohio.

Read More
Youngs-Plant-Farm-Landscape-bed

January 31, 2018

2017 Young’s Plant Field Trials Results

Check out the field trials results for Young’s Plant Farm in Auburn, AL.

Read More

January 30, 2018

Grow High-Quality ‘Lyra’ and ‘Mirage&…

Syngenta Flowers' Technical Services Manager Karl Trellinger gives production recommendations for growing high-quality 'Lyra' and 'Mirage' poinsettias.

Read More
Poinsettia-Mirage-Red-Syngenta-Flowers

January 30, 2018

Growing Tips for ‘Mirage’ and ‘Lyra’ Poinsettias

Both varieties are easy to grow without any special requirements, can handle all climates, and perform well under low light conditions.

Read More
Welby-container-trials

January 29, 2018

2017 Welby Gardens Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for Welby Gardens in Denver, CO.

Read More
Ornamental pepper 'Sedona Sun'

January 28, 2018

2017 University of Tennessee Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for the University of Tennessee Gardens in Jackson, TN.

Read More
Zinnia-Magellan-Orange

January 27, 2018

2017 University of Minnesota Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for The University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center Horticulture Display Garden in Morris, MN.

Read More
Scaevola-Surdiva-Blue-Violet

January 25, 2018

2017 Pike Creek Horticulture Center Field Trials Result…

Check out the 2017 field trial results for the Pike Creek Horticulture Center, Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, WI.

Read More
Raker calibrachoa trial

January 24, 2018

2017 Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants Field Trial Res…

Check out the 2017 field trial results for Raker-Roberta's Young Plants in Litchfield, MI.

Read More
2018 Costa Open House

January 23, 2018

2018 Costa Open House: Standout Plants and Products

See what plants and products caught our eye at the Costa Farms open house in Miami, FL.

Read More
shade-trials-OKSU

January 22, 2018

2017 Oklahoma State University Field Trials Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City, OK.

Read More
Pennisetum-Feathertop_Feature-Image_NDSU

January 21, 2018

2017 North Dakota State University Field Trials

Check out the 2017 field trial results for North Dakota State University Department of Plant Sciences in Fargo, ND.

Read More
Mixture-of-Begonia-Megawatt-and-Whopper-series_OSU

January 19, 2018

2017 The Ohio State University Field Trial Results

Check out the 2017 field trial results for The Ohio State University/Chadwick Arboretum in Columbus, OH.

Read More
Sedeveria-Lilac-Mist-feature

January 19, 2018

Hot-Selling Succulents Remain Hip, With No End in Sight

Succulents continue to fascinate people of all ages and gardening abilities. Perhaps that’s because they still have the right stuff to attract attention.

Read More
Heuchera-Northern-Exposure-Black-Terra-Nova-Nurseries

January 18, 2018

Terra Nova Adds Two New Heuchera to its Northern Exposu…

Terra Nova Nurseries has created plant profile pages specific to these new varieties so growers can learn about their growing habits and plant characteristics.

Read More