Friday, January 3, 2014

Breeding for Rust Resistance in Daylilies: Part 8

Breeding for Rust Resistance in Daylilies: Part 8

This section will be split into two posts as it is rather long at nine typed pages.

A Challenge and Invitation: Part 1

This section might better have been titled ‘Ramblings’, because I will be doing just that; covering various points that don’t conveniently fall into any of the previous categories and while pointing out various options open to the hobbyist breeder. We have covered many topics in some small detail and I hope by now you have a good overview of rust, resistance breeding in general, how rating and evaluation may be done and a more realistic understanding of what may be possible or desirable. There are many other minute topics we could look at but that don’t merit a full posting at this time.

Rust is a reality and will likely continue to spread. There seems to be no way around that. While it would be nice to wait until there is ‘scientific proof’, “real data” as I hear many people say, the truth is that we may be waiting until we are very old to start, if that is the criterion we hold for a beginning point. Science, of necessity, moves at a slow pace. It must, because science is looking for proof and only repetition of data can provide proof and that takes time. 

However, for science to take the level of interest that can give us proof there will have to be an economic incentive that will cause industry to finance a university or other researcher(s) in a project to obtain ‘proof’. To date this hasn’t really happened (not to any level that will help us start a breeding project on ‘proven facts’), nor is it likely to happen any time soon, because daylilies just don’t have the economic force to justify it to the money people (industry). Now some may make a pretty penny on their daylilies, but compared to real commercial species such as petunias or maize, daylilies are a tiny drop in a huge ocean and mainly benefit a handful of hobbyists, rather than any large sector within the overall plant industry. With that being the case, I would strongly advise you not to hold your breath waiting on a study to answer all the questions and give you ‘permission’ to proceed.

In short, industry has little to no reason to care about our daylilies, and the type of research project that would be required to give us a solid grounding of proof to proceed from is going to be very expensive and no scientist can do such a project without grants and financial backing. So unless we have a secret daylily hobbyist who is a billionaire and wants to privately fund such a study out of the goodness of his/her heart (and then make the results available to us all for free and not try to keep them as trade secrets to benefit from personally), the chances of this happening seem small. 

Now, before you start sighting studies to me, I would point out that all the studies done so far have been small and have provided us with little practical and applicable information. The kind of information that a hobbyist can use in breeding is rarely what a researcher will be interested in, and vice-versa, their interests rarely translate to an average hobby enterprise. The studies we have seen so far have given us some indications, a finger pointing us in a direction, but little more.

The recent confirmation that there is more than one strain of rust is helpful, for instance, but the researchers didn’t give us any information to practically breed for multiple strains, nor do we have any way to conveniently identify various strains in our own garden. The notion that there wouldn’t be multiple strains of rust, to me, stretched credulity to begin with so all that project gave to me was ‘proof’ that there were multiple strains - something I already knew would be the reality based on the fact that everything evolves over time and all other forms of rust occurring in any other plant species evolves into multiple strains and rather quickly at that. The possibility that there weren’t multiple strains of rust seemed highly improbable, to me. So I would say that “waiting for proof” is just a way to not bother with resistance breeding: an intelligent sounding cop-out, much like throwing ones hands up in the air and screaming “But I can’t, there’s no proooooooooof!” and then proceeding to do nothing with a convenient excuse.

There is good evidence of what is possible. However, this will fall into the dreaded realm of ‘anecdotal evidence’, which has somehow been turned into something akin to old-wives-tales, flat-earthers and conspiracy theories: pseudo-science. Yet, ‘anecdotal evidence’ is not pseudo-science. It isn’t really science, nor does it need to be. No, it won’t pass a peer-review, but it can be reliable, especially when there is a large body of anecdotes that all are pointing out the same thing. The preposition that ‘anecdotal evidence’ is useless is just another convenient cop-out for those not willing to do anything, sort of a shield for inaction.

When many anecdotal reports are reviewed, common threads can be discovered that can lead to the discovery of actual facts, the so-desired ‘proof’. Many scientific studies have been done, and breakthroughs have occurred, because someone listened to anecdotal evidence and then built a study to prove or disprove what they were being told. In a court of law, ‘anecdotal evidence’, eyewitness testimony, can put you on death row, so why do we think it should be utterly ignored in every other facet of life? For my part, I believe in ‘proof’ when it is available, but when it is not, I begin by looking at anecdotal evidence to see if I can find common threads, recurring themes, from which to proceed with my own experiments in breeding. Anecdotes may not be peer-reviewable, but they are not lies, falsehoods or fantasies in all cases either, probably in most, especially when we are dealing with fairly down-to-earth subject matter like plant breeding.

Resistance breeding is not some new-fangled science that just came about in the last twenty years or so. It isn’t quantum physics. In fact, our ancestors have been practicing resistance breeding since the very first domestication events of both plants and animals. You may ask how did they do this? Well, very simply: when a disease ravaged their crops or flocks, if there were any survivors who could reproduce, they became the parents of the next generation. That is resistance breeding in a nutshell. In less dramatic instances, the poor performing individuals (in instances where diseases didn’t kill but only impaired) were removed from the gene pool through culling. Sometimes environmental circumstances alone created a drive toward greater vigor and resistance, and this was all occurring without any scientific knowledge (as we now know it) and without any peer-reviewed papers telling them they could do this. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the peer-review process isn’t important or valid. It is. I am only saying it is not that important or valid to the act of hobbyist breeding. That is why I went out of my way in the beginning of this series to specify the differences between the two things. We as hobbyist breeders are not looking for peer-reviewed ‘proof’, but rather for results and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there to show us that breeding for resistance to rust in daylilies is possible. All we have to do is actually do it.

I would also stress that I don’t think this should all be codified. There should be no absolute rules to how this is done, beyond the known facts of resistance breeding and genetics in general, and each person needs to find the level where they wish to work, for themselves. There is a large amount of data available about resistance breeding in many plant species and against many pathogens. It isn’t specifically about daylilies, but it is imminently applicable to daylilies. One thing I would not like to see is an enforced code that states that resistance breeding has to be done one certain way. There will be nearly as many approaches as there are breeders pursuing the goal. 

I have often heard criticism of the American Hemerocallis Society for not ‘doing more about rust’. I wonder though if their fairly hands-off approach has not been a blessing in the long run. I say this because I would be very leery of set parameters of ‘acceptable resistance’ or ‘acceptable breeding styles’ that were codified. To me, the truth of the matter is that rust is too vast and complex a problem for AHS to have dealt with it effectively and when I hear people proposing that they should have, I actually hear, “Why didn’t someone else do all the leg work so I don't have to?”

I cannot imagine the type of project AHS could have pursued (financially or practically) that would have tested all daylily cultivars against rust resistance, and if they didn’t test them all, then which ones would they test? Who decides? They would have needed to run those tests for many years and in multiple locations to arrive at enough data to make a determination of ‘proof’, and how would they have tested them against all strains of rust? I see the notion that AHS could have ‘done something’ as a simple lack of knowledge of what it would really take to ‘do something’, and then I would turn around and ask the person asking that question, this question- “What are you doing?” 

For AHS to put their name on any claims, those claims would need to be vetted and proven, and we have discussed proof here in previous posts. It would take years and lots of money to make such determinations, and then a new strain of rust could come along every year and destroy their well-vetted ‘facts’. I therefore feel that dealing with rust, breeding for rust resistance or not, falls firmly at the feet of the breeders. The fate of all domestics has always fallen at the feet of the breeders, in the end. Why would the daylily be any different? Scientists can help us, but we can’t expect them to swoop in with all the answers. Organizations designed for registry and promotion are not capable of the kinds of projects that could make hard and fast determinations that we might want, so who else is left to do this, if not we the breeders?

The truth is that there is no group more imminently suited to this work than the people who are breeding the plants. We are out amongst them; we participate in their reproduction, choosing their partners and raising their offspring. We select them for every criterion imaginable, culling millions each year, but we feel others should give us the ‘fix’ for this problem? I think that is fear and laziness talking. We say we don’t know how, don’t know where to begin, don’t know what would work, but the information is out there. Resistance breeding in plants is a well known and much-written-about subject. 

Furthermore, there is a great deal of anecdotal, gathered information about breeding for rust resistance in daylilies. You just need to listen to those who are doing it, rather than listen to the fear-mongers who insist it can’t be done, most likely because they don’t want to bother with doing it or are afraid to try (or more likely afraid of trying and failing, or perhaps of just having to shift their focus for a generation or two). All you can do is ignore the naysayers and proceed. If you fail, you are no worse off than you are now, and all the evidence points to those who try being somewhat successful.

In the next post we will pick up where this one left off and look at some tips and pointers I have for hobbyists, collectors and breeders who wish to pay any attention at all to rust resistance in daylilies.