Wednesday, September 25, 2013

2013: The Season Ending

The Season Ending…

This has been an interesting year here in my garden. There is no doubt about that. As I look back over this season, one of the things that stand out most to me is the amazing effect of the huge amounts of rain and fairly cool weather. Two things stand out chief amongst many – prodigious seed-set and rebloom. Simply put, I have never seen such amazing seed set. I have gotten tons of seeds on all the reliable seed-setters, but even more interesting was the number of cultivars that set seeds (at least a few, though in some instances very well) that usually won’t set seeds at all.

Once I realized that certain tough-setters were giving good pods, I redoubled efforts on those, suspecting I might not see this effect again for years. A friend told me to be sure to plant those seeds, as I may never see seeds again on a few of those in my lifetime! I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do suspect that it will be a while before I see those particular cultivars bearing pods again, and so they will likely go back to being pollen parents exclusively. As a result of the wonderful year for seed-set, I have ended up with around 50,000 seeds, which is the largest number I have ever worked with. It is daunting, but exciting too. One key to breeding is to generate numbers, because it is in large numbers that unusual genetic combinations (“breaks”) can occur most reliably.

Rebloom has been glorious here. There is just no other way to say it. All the reliable rebloomers have produced a profusion of scapes and many other things have rebloomed that typically don’t here. I am sure the water has been the major contributor. While I have made notes in my breeding records of all the rebloomers of this year, I am certain that some of these will not show it again (except in an exceptionally wet year), and can’t be counted as reliable rebloomers. However, they can be used in crosses to reliable rebloomers to perhaps accentuate the trait in their progeny.

What this year has really brought to my attention is how important rebloom is from a garden perspective. Rebloom is a major consideration in my work, but this year really underlined how much I need to keep that in focus. I think we can get so caught up with phenotype minutiae – double, triple or quadruple edges, teeth, exact color shade, spidery forms or round and ruffled forms, wildly patterned eyes – that we can easily forget the basic plant habit traits that makes a daylily so desirable in a real garden setting, and not just in our very myopic hybridizing and collecting gardens. Let me assure you, all my friends and family who saw the garden this year were most impressed by, and most often commenting on, the profusion of scapes, flowers and rebloom, and were not even mentioning edges or patterns!

I had a huge number of seedlings in first flower this year and many of them were very exciting to me, not because they are potential introductions, but because they are the type of bridge plants I had envisioned when I made the crosses. While I can’t say that I have the genetics of daylilies “down pat”, it is becoming clear to me how the heritance of certain traits seems to run in the plants I am working with. To be honest, there were not a lot of surprises, but the few I did get were often quite sensational! I believe many collectors and hybridizers would look at my seedling crop with a very jaundiced eye and perhaps feel I was wasting my time with a crop of outdated, same-old-same-old, but I remain very excited by what I am seeing. The seedlings I am producing are keeping me very engaged, excited about what is to come, and that is what matters most to me. I know where I want to go and I think I have a good idea of how to get there.

I suspect that hobbyists, collectors and hybridizers, become very bored quite easily. I often here the complaint of, “I just am not seeing anything new, or any amazing new breaks”, but I have to think that is the jaundiced eye of the bored rather than a factual evaluation of what is really happening. For me, I don’t expect to be amazed and wowed every year. I am the type of person, perhaps because I am looking at details beyond the obvious, which is wowed and satisfied by small incremental increases in positive attributes. I see that as real, consistent change that is leading somewhere. If all you’re interested in though is the latest and greatest flower, the freakiest thing you have ever seen to date, then you won’t be very impressed by what impresses me. That’s ok too, as it takes all kinds.

Another thing this year really drove home is the importance of tried and true older cultivars as the backbone of the garden. There are certain cultivars I would never be caught without for a garden display and that is as much because of their reliability in many situations and conditions as for their beauty. The contrast between the cool, wet weather of this summer and the hot, dry conditions of last summer were a stark contrast, but it underlined that certain cultivars are highly adaptable and put on a good show regardless of the whims and changes of the climate.

On the flip side of this, the exceptional weather from this year underlined the fact that some daylilies just aren’t happy or perform well in any climate. When you have a glorious older cultivar that flourishes in any conditions and growing beside it is an expensive, ‘latest-and-greatest’ that performs equally dreadfully in all climatic conditions, you question the wisdom of that cultivar having been introduced. Oh, I know! It has triple edges and ruffles so big and ridiculous that they look like a used Kleenex, but what is the point of a plant with such traits if it never puts on a good show, regardless of the conditions you give it? If there is never a ‘right’ year for that cultivar, where does it fit into the garden? Some will say, well it is a hybridizer’s plant, but is it then going to pass on all those bad traits too? Perhaps it should have remained in the hybridizing garden and some improved descendant have then made its way into the registry?

This year brought about many thoughts concerning breeding and combining traits as I saw the seedlings produce their first flowers. I have often heard breeders say that you have to use the very latest things, and they will give the excuse that these newer plants are ‘so improved’ over older things, and this is usually said with great disdain for the ‘older things’, as if they are mentally impaired relatives to be hurried off to the attic when guests arrive. As a breeder and student of genetics, I do understand what they really mean, and that is that those individuals who have a high concentration of genetics for a given traits, usually by having been selected for greater trait modification over many generations, are more capable of passing on the trait, especially when they are bred to other individuals from much the same type of selection. This is true and apparent, however, it is only one way to breed, and there are as many ways to approach breeding, as there are breeders.

While one person may choose to concentrate traits, seeking more and more individuals exhibiting extremes within a small number of offspring, others can choose other ways to approach breeding, such as creating new bloodlines, opening up overly concentrated bloodlines or recombining traits to create new combinations that have not been seen before. All require different methods, and no one is better than another. There is often a judgy tone about comments of people using ‘old things’, usually summed up with the concept of using them ‘setting you back years, decades, centuries, millennia (choose your own derisive timeframe)’, but that type of thinking reveals a somewhat lax understanding of genetics.

It may be true that to cross a very concentrated and extreme individual to something with less concentration will produce F1 offspring that show intermediate traits or (if a lot of recessive genes are involved) none of the traits of the extreme parent, but what seems to be forgotten is that such F1 individuals carry the genes of the extreme parent and can be used to breed for such traits, especially through backcrossing to other such extreme individuals or through interbreeding with other carriers (siblings, first cousins, etc). With the large number of people breeding daylilies today, I believe there is room for a wide range or breeding projects and that no one is better or more important than the others. I also believe it is especially important for newcomers to experiment and find their place and their way, and to not be herded into one narrow avenue of breeding because someone else thinks that is the only effective method. Who knows what breaks are missed because someone abandoned a project because another person, allegedly more experienced and wise, steered them away from it because of a narrow judgment about what is ‘right and wrong’.

It is surprising, but I have seen little rust so far this year. I would think this year was idea for rust, and I did bring in a number of cultivars this year and many were from Florida and other parts south. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I don’t mind not seeing a huge outbreak as I am so busy moving seedlings and planting the huge numbers of seeds from this year, but on the other, for the most part it is a year lost from selecting for resistance amongst my seedlings and the new cultivars I have just brought in.

The rust I have seen appeared in my aunt’s yard on one or two known rust magnets and for several weeks did not spread. Within the last couple of weeks it has appeared throughout her garden and has now crossed the road to my mother’s garden, probably carried on shoes and pant legs as well as the wind, but I have been careful not to spread it into my hybridizing garden this year by working on their gardens on one day in a particular pairs of shoes/sets of clothes and in my gardens on alternating days in different shoes and clothes. In part this has been to see if the rust would transmit to my gardens (which are not very far from theirs) on its own through wind as well as to see if I could intentionally quarantine the rust through a bit of effort. To date, I have seen no rust in my gardens, but there is still time and it is likely that I will go ahead and infect the seedlings within the next couple of weeks if no rust appears before then. I find it unlikely that I will be able to withstand the pressure to go ahead and cull through the seedlings for this important trait for an entire year.

It has been very interesting to observe the rust in the upper gardens, as I have been able to eliminate some things that were new as well as some of the seedlings growing in those gardens, but most interesting has been that nothing that was low-rust or rust-free last year has been any different this year. Those with seeming immunity have remained seemingly immune this year and those that showed low-rust last year have again been the same. As well, those rust magnets from last year that were retained have been rust magnets again this year.

I have noticed a tendency amongst some daylily growers to say that there are no daylilies that won’t get rust. I have to disagree. We now have some confirmation that there are multiple strains of rust in the US, so while it may be true that there are no daylilies that are immune or resistant to every strain of rust (and we can’t as yet know this for a fact either), I believe it is a gross exaggeration based in ignorance or and agenda to say that there are no daylilies that won’t get rust. I have noticed that in every instance, the persons I have seen or heard make this statement are either selling daylilies or hybridizing and selling them. It makes me wonder what is at work with that blanket statement.

One the one hand, it is possible that they simply haven’t observed their plants closely enough to have noticed the consistently low rust or immune. Another possibility is that they spray and so have no option to see that there are consistently variable levels of rust infestation amongst individual cultivars, and that some are even consistently immune, and are just making pessimistic statements about a subject that scares them (and perhaps threatens their bottom line). Another thought is that they are saying this to excuse the rusty plants they carry (or have bred) and are selling. If there are truly no daylilies that don’t get rust, then they are off the hook for making no effort to eliminate the rust magnets from their stock or their hybridizing. However, if the opposite is true, then they must bear some responsibility for passing on rust susceptible plants and genetic lineages. If there are really plants that show low rust, or are truly immune to at least one or more strains of rust, then why isn’t more effort being made to improve our beloved plants through selection? I have my guesses, but I will leave it for you to ponder on your own.

To whit, there are plants that show high resistance to rust and some seem to be immune. Every year, I see some of the same cultivars show no infection by rust, no matter what I do to infect them. They exist and they are real. It is not the imaginings of a fevered mind projecting a wish upon them. People need to be aware of this and give it some consideration. While ‘breeding for rust resistance’ does not have to be everyone’s main focus, no one would be harmed from using the plants they love with the least susceptibility to rust in their hybridizing programs. You don’t have to make rust resistance front and center of your breeding program, but you can begin to treat resistance as just another trait you select for. And please don’t tell me that is a burden or that you can’t select for multiple traits, because we all select for multiple traits, including branching, bud count, foliage type, growth rates, scape strength, sun and water-fastness, clear colors, etc, in addition to our ‘focus trait’. No matter how much anyone may protest that they only focus on one trait, no one really does, so how can giving some consideration to rust resistance/susceptibility create a burden too great to bear?

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make regarding rust is to think they have to produce perfectly, continually, and completely resistant plants. I think people have unrealistic expectations, both of what they would like to produce and what they expect in terms of resistance. I think the sane and reasonable thing would be to gradually move the genome toward greater resistance, with full immunity being less the goal. Full immunity would be nice, but I believe it may be very rare and that it may be more easily breached as the pathogen continues to mutate into more strains. The most reliable thing to work toward may be high resistance, where some rust is seen, but it is not the visual and emotional nightmare of a garden full of highly susceptible rust magnets.

One of the most important lessons I am learning about rust is that I can tolerate rust so long as I don’t have to look at highly susceptible rust magnets dripping rust onto the ground like some type of perverse rust fountain. I think tolerance is the key – that is, finding plants with lower susceptibility and learning to be tolerant of a bit of rust in the garden as a reality of growing daylilies in the twenty-first century. I also think this approach may be the most applicable to the public. In my experience, most average gardeners don’t even see rust if it is not extensive and don’t mind it when it is not an unsightly mess. This makes me think the goal is not then to produce lines of super-immune daylilies, but to eliminate the continual introduction of wildly unsightly rust magnets. For my part, I am not too upset to dig up and throw out a five to fifteen dollar rust magnet that was introduced before rust was a factor in the US, but I can tell you that having to eliminate a really expensive rust magnet that was introduced post-rust does not leave me in a very pretty mood for a few days! I think the average gardener is going to feel the much same way.

The final thing I wanted to touch on for this post is that I was afraid that the later season we had this year would keep me from planting my seeds outside in late summer and early fall, but much to my relief, that has not been the case. I typically like to start planting seeds in the beginning of August. This year, I was delayed two weeks and was able to begin in the second week of August. That was a huge relief, as I have produced such a huge amount of seed and I really don’t like keeping seeds through the winter. It is interesting to me to read various people proclaim the necessity of stratifying daylily seeds. I have to say, either I am experiencing a true anomaly, or daylily seeds really don’t need stratification. I have not stratified seeds for the last couple of years and I am still getting tremendous germination. Just to test the point this year, I gathered seeds from pods just beginning to open this year and planted them the same day and so far, am seeing about 85-90% germination on those. These were both tets and dips, all three of the foliage classifications (Ev, Sev and Dorm) as well as northern bred and southern bred. I have seen no discernable difference based upon any of these points and so have to conclude that the need to stratify, or that germination is improved by stratifying, a daylily seed is a myth. I want to thank Mike Huben for pointing out this fact to me a few years back. (You have saved me a ton of work and streamlined my process as well. My gratitude!)

One of the reasons that I want my daylily seedlings up and growing before winter hits is so that the cold can kill any weak or cold-susceptible individuals. I consider this an important culling device. As well, by having the seedlings growing in the fall, they are very likely to encounter rust and can be culled for that before I have invested a lot of time into them. Truth be told, I like to do as much culling as possible before the first flower, because it can be very difficult to cull a really stunning flower, no matter how bad the other traits are. So by culling for rust resistance, plant traits, cold hardiness, etc., before they ever flower, I am not tempted to keep those that are weak in those areas because of the flower.

At this point I have about 35,000 seeds planted and will continue planting until I run out of seeds or until about the first of December, whichever comes first. While seed planted through October and November may not get a chance to germinate and grow this year, it can lay dormant till spring and germinate then. I will be especially interested to see how germination rates compare on the same crosses where some were germinated in August and September, as compared to those from the same cross planted in late fall/early winter and left to germinate in the spring, and that may give me something to write about come spring.

I hope your 2013 season was a wonderful year. Mine was extraordinary. Let’s hope 2014 is also as good.