Different Breeders, Different Methods

I was answering questions from Dr. David Byrne who was asking about the breeders with whom we work.  A rose breeder himself, and a Professor at Texas A&M University, he was in the process of writing an article about how breeders approach their work.

After we hung up, I thought this would be a good topic for a blog.

First, let me say that there are as many objectives and ways to reach them as there are breeders. That is, simply because breeders are human beings, and breeding is as much an art as it is a science, at least in Horticulture.

It is also fair to say that almost all breeders have the common goal to create new hybrids that are easy to grow, disease resistant, always in bloom, fragrant and so forth.  What I think distinguishes the very good breeders from the rest is how they achieve their goals by knowing exactly what resources they are dealing with.  A major commercial breeding program like Kordes in Germany, who germinates hundreds of thousands of seeds every year and who has acres of trial fields to evaluate them, looks very different than Will Radler who in a good year will have a couple thousand seedlings germinating in his basement and his backyard.  Or compared to Jim Sproul with his hobby greenhouse (albeit a very nice one) and only ¼ acre of containers to do his work.

Dr. Byrne was especially interested in discussing how rose breeders specifically are looking at disease resistance all over the world. So knowing their resources, and therefore their limitations force the best breeders to be very efficient in how they address this particular issue. Let’s look at black spot for example.

Some breeders inoculate black spot directly on their germination beds, in order to eliminate as many seedlings as quickly as possible. This is very effective especially if you have limited space and labor to do your selection work afterwards, but in this case you will never know if some of the seedlings that showed no resistance as a seedling will change when they grow up. Plants are just like people.  Seedlings (like babies) are more sensitive to diseases than healthy adults, and very young plants will not necessarily behave and react the same to diseases than when fully mature.

However, waiting until the hundreds if not thousands of seedlings are fully mature to evaluate their disease resistance requires a lot of resources that most breeders simply do not have.  So, they usually take an intermediate step, where they make their preliminary selection based on aesthetical criteria first (like color, form and foliage color) and then they test the disease resistance on the selected few seedlings that pass the first test.

Where the breeding is performed also has a lot to do with this, since breeding in a very favorable climate like California will make it more difficult to judge disease resistance to black spot than in Southeastern Pennsylvania or Florida for example. But the reverse will be true if you want to find out about rust resistance.

So there is no method that is “better” than the other, and at the end of the day, what really separates great breeders from the others is the commercial success of their seedlings.

Until next time!

VP of License and New Business Development at Star® Roses and Plants

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