Rogues gallery

You know the word “rogue” as a noun and adjective, and probably from when Sarah Palin “went rogue” during her time as vice presidental candidate.

But you may not know that it also a verb. That’s the way I use it most often. I rogue plants and I complain — often — about seed producers not doing enough roguing.

To rogue means to weed out inferior or off-type plants. It is a critical part of producing and maintaining seed selections of plants. Whenever you are growing fields of plants for seed production, be it tomatoes or zinnias or corn, you get off types. Chance mutations, seedlings produced from errant grains of pollen from another variety, or just change of the diversity within the population. So one has to rogue — walk through the fields and pull out flowers that are the wrong color, corn plants that aren’t yielding enough, all the unexpected variants to keep the variety true to type.

The annoying thing is that a lot of seed producers cut corners — particularly, it seems, for annual flower seed — and don’t bother. The results can be very frustrating.

The worst are flowers in mixed colors. Maintaining a good mix of multiple colors requires careful roguing to ensure one color — due to greater vigor or just chance — doesn’t come to dominate. Lots of companies just don’t seem to bother.

Last year I bought a packet of Zinnia ‘State Fair’, an old, and wonderful seed strain, which was supposed to come in the full mix of zinnia flower colors.


I got pink. That’s all. Just pink. My whole row was pink. Not my favorite color of zinnia. Clearly the pink plants slowly came to dominate the fields of whoever is producing these seeds, and instead of roguing out some to bring the color mix back into balance, they just let them go rogue, and I got stuck with just one color.

The ‘State Fair’ zinnias were also supposed to be double, like this.


They weren’t. Single flowered forms will almost always come to dominate seed strains unless rogued out because they’re easier for insects to pollinate and thus tend to produce more seed. Clearly no one bothered, because every plant I sowed out gave me just a single row of showy petals.

I’ve had similar experiences with countless other varieties of seed annuals. The picture looks great on the packet, but sow them out and mostly what I get are rogues, not the variety I was after. The lack of roguing is a plague… bad enough that a friend in the horticulture industry once mentioned casually to me that, of course, cosmos varieties are only worth growing when they are first introduced. A few years without good roguing, and their desirable characteristics are mostly lost.

So more roguing please. I love growing big blowsy annual flowers from seed. I’m tired of them all going rogue.

Blast from my petunia past

A few days ago I recorded a podcast with Margaret Roach were we talked about all our favorite seed sources. One of the many things we mentioned were the great species petunias available from Select Seeds. Which caused me to flash back to my time in graduate school doing research on petunias, and dig up these old images.

Petunia integrifolia (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)
Petunia integrifolia (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)

At the top are Petunia integrifolia (purple) and Petunia axillaris (white) and below are an assortment of flowers from a population of F2 hybrids between the two. This cross is interesting because it is a recreation of the original hybrid that created modern hybrid petunia.

Petunia exserta (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)
Petunia exserta (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)

But more fun is a similar cross with the one hummingbird pollinated petunia, P. exserta! It is fun to see the ways the colors and flower forms recombine in new ways in the seedlings.
I don’t have anything profound to say about these pictures… just, hey, isn’t genetics cool?
Joseph Tychonievich

The “safe seed pledge” is meaningless

The seed catalogs have started showing up in the mail, and a great number of them include something like this on the first few pages:


Here’s the thing: NO ONE is selling genetically engineered seeds to home gardeners. There is one company, funded by kickstarter, that is trying to sell genetically engineered seeds of a glow-in-the-dark plant sometime in the future (though, like a lot of kickstarter project, the actual release date keeps getting delayed) but other than that, genetically engineered varieties are only being sold to commercial farmers, and only after the farmer has signed a pretty comprehensive licensing agreement.

You can go to the store and buy food made from genetically engineered varieties — essentially anything that contains corn and isn’t labeled as organic will be — and you can stop by the pet store and pick yourself up a fish with jellyfish genes, but no one is trying to sell you genetically engineered seeds.

So those pledges in seed catalogs promising they contain no GMO seeds are technically true, but also pretty meaningless. So if you are worried about accidentally getting a GMO variety, don’t be. And if you wish you COULD grow one, sorry, you are out of luck, unless that kickstarter project ever actually gets up and running.

— Joseph Tychonievich

Add one species, get four new ones

Here’s an interesting twist on the whole native, non-native discussion… sometimes the introduction of new species of plants can trigger the evolution of new species of insects! Sometimes, in fact, a whole bunch of them, as is described in the coolest new research paper I’ve read in ages (Actual paper, behind a pay wall) (A brief Summary)

Introduce apples, trigger the evolution of four new species of insect
Introduce apples, trigger the evolution of four new species of insect

Basically, there is a fruit fly, Rhagoletis pomonella, native to Eastern North America that lays its eggs on the ripe fruits of native hawthorns. It is part of a whole group of species of flies that each go after a different kind of fruit – blueberries, snowberries and dogwoods each have their own species of closely related fly. When Europeans arrived and introduced non-native apple trees, the hawthorn fly started laying eggs on the apples as well, and got the name of apple maggot. But here’s the crazy bit: The hawthorn flies didn’t just expand their diet, they actually evolved to a new race, a new species in the making, that live exclusively on apples.

These flies have very brief life spans, so the adults must emerge at exactly the right time or there won’t be ripe fruit to lay their eggs on. But apples and hawthorns ripen nearly a month apart, so the apple targeting flies have evolved to emerge several weeks earlier than the original hawthorn flies. In addition to diverging in time of emergence, the two types of flies have changed their preferences in smells. The original fly is attracted to the smell of hawthorns, and avoids the smell of apples, while the new flies show the exact opposite behavior, each homing in on their target host, be it new or old.

The final piece of these two types of flies becoming two different species is that they each now mate only on the fruit of their tree of choice. This is important, because now the apple and hawthorn flies don’t interbreed due to their preference of mating location, and being a reproductively isolated group is the most commonly accepted definition of a species. Now the two types of flies will continue to diverge, as the lack of interbreeding means more and more genetic differences between the two populations will build up over time.
All of this is very cool, and has been long understood. Here’s the EVEN COOLER part from this new research: The divergence of one kind of fruit fly into two is cascading through the ecosystem. There are three species of parasitioid wasps that lay their eggs on the hawthorn fruit fly that have diverge into new forms that specialize in the new apple fruit fly. Just like the fruit flies, the timing of their life cycle, their preference and avoidance of the smell of the ripe fruit, and their mating habits have shifted to create different apple and hawthorn specific races. So where there was one fruit fly and three wasps, the introduction of the European apple has lead to the evolution of one additional fruit fly, and three new wasps.

I’m not sure what import this has, if any, in the ever raging native-versus-exotic debate in horticulture, but it sure is cool – the evolution of new species happening right before our eyes.

Joseph Tychonievich

Where double flowers come from (sometimes)

Doubling of flowers — the development of extra petals — is a common mutation, and often beloved by gardeners. Sometimes double forms of flowers become so popular that gardeners hardly recognize the single flowered, wild-type. Wild roses, for example, have just 5 (or, in once case, 4) petals and look totally different than the extra petal flaunting varieties familiar from gardens.

Rose rubrifolia, like other roses before human breeders got their hands on them, has only 5 petals
Rose glauca, like other roses before human breeders got their hands on them, has only 5 petals

Doubling usually happens when gene expression gets mixed up and bits of cells that were destined to develop into anthers develop into extra petals instead. Sometimes a single mutation makes a dramatic change all in a go, but more often, the path to a double flowered cultivar starts with something like this:

Iris x norrisii with three ugly little petaloids full of potential
Iris x norrisii with three ugly little petaloids full of potential

Here we have a flower of Iris xnorrisii (formerly known as x Pardancanda norrisii) with the usual six petals, and three “petaloids” — anthers that are stuck in an ugly transition between anther and petal. This is a seedling in my garden this year, and I’m going to grow out lots of seeds from it — hopefully some of them will get past the petaloid stage to full on extra petals and hey presto, a double flowered variety will be born!

Joseph Tychonievich