Better Perennial Plants Are on the Horizon

Echinacea ‘Kismet Intense Orange' from Terra Nova Nurseries

Years of persistent breeding has resulted in bountiful, vibrant flowers and long bloom times ranging from early summer until frost for echinacea. [Pictured] Echinacea ‘Kismet Intense Orange.’ Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Perennial plants are in a period of rapid growth, as consumer demand continually expands and breeders work through the huge pool of genetic diversity that has yet to be explored. Perennial varieties were traditionally derived from plant sports and variations found within nurseries. These require cold treatments to flower and are not as easily programmable for production. Current breeding methods focus on first-year flowering with no cold treatments and improvements in crop timing and hardiness, so perennials can be grown similar to annuals. Furthermore, new breeding methods are working on better garden performance, vibrant colors, and unusual flower forms.

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Breeding Knowledge Paramount for Perennials
Perennial breeding can be like rolling the dice, so concentrating on learning the proper methods to control and predict the outcomes through experience is key, says Chuck Pavlich, Director of New Product Development at Terra Nova Nurseries. “General education of breeding is important, but nothing truly replaces the knowledge and intimacy of a genus you gain through the trial and error process of perennial breeding,” he says.

Perennial breeding is a slower process than with annuals and requires more extensive testing before going to market. New techniques have been developed to break dominance in genes with reasonable success, but it still takes three to four years to achieve expected results, and up to 10 years to see your new variety in the market.

Star Roses and Plants breeder Laura Lara agrees that breeding is an art and a science. Overcoming issues with pollination techniques, parent compatibility, trait inheritance patterns, and early embryo abortion are necessary when combining different disciplines together to achieve the desired outcome.

New Technological Advances Will Open Up Perennials Breeding
Currently, the market is saturated with older perennial varieties that need improvement in habit, propagation, and performance. Perennial breeding has become so mainstream that often products are introduced before they are ready, due to the slow breeding cycles that perennials require. It is important to use a thorough selection process and trial those selections properly, although scientific advances in cellular and molecular biology are needed to further improve perennial breeding programs.

Zoltan Kovacs, Perennial Product Manager for Dümmen Orange, says the need to use new technologies like embryo rescue will produce truly new and different varieties of perennials that will keep the consumer’s interest long-term. Most perennial breeding in the past was conducted by hobbyists and growers selecting new varieties from existing populations, explains Karl Batschke, Global Product Manager at Darwin Perennials, who says more progress is being made now with trained, professional plant breeders using modern methods and resources.

Interspecific hybrids will often provide longer flowering windows, with better disease resistance and weather tolerance, Batschke says, and consumers recognize the value of plants that will remain in the landscape for years to come.

Pavlich says that the use of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene-editing technology has generated the largest buzz. The ability to change plant characteristics without consuming the time and efforts of common breeding work to achieve the same desirable outcomes will lead to better bred perennials in the future. Additionally, the widespread use and availability of such innovation will ultimately drive down costs for perennial breeding companies, resulting in an increase on investment returns and more improvements in perennials, sooner.

It’s a Whole New World for Perennials
Perennials comprise the largest portion of a well-balanced garden, offering excellent performance and colors through the seasons.

“As gardeners, growers, and landscape architects continue to look for perennials that provide a unique touch to the landscape, we continue to develop new varieties that provide the longevity, flower power, and disease resistance that they need,” Lara says.