Monday, January 9, 2017

2016 In Review - Looking Back at My Program

2016 In Review 
Looking Back at My Program

This post picks up where my last one (2016 Thanks and Gratitude) left off. In that post I stressed that I can only encourage all the many directions being taken in the daylily world in terms of breeding. I also pointed out that my blog is simply a chronicle of my personal direction and not to be taken as a dictate on what your program should be. I wanted to take this blog post to explain how I view my program and its progress up to this time.
At the beginning of my breeding work with Hemerocallis in 2010, I already had been growing daylilies for over thirty years and breeding animals for nearly that long as well. So I had the experience of growing many daylilies, as well as the knowledge of how all my previous breeding projects had unfolded. One thing I knew going in was that no matter what ‘look’ or phenotypes I was most attracted to, no matter what I might arbitrarily choose to focus on based on looking at flowers or flower pictures in catalogs and online, the actual act of growing and testing the plants would inevitably steer me in directions I couldn’t have foreseen. This always happens for me in any program. Why? Because I don’t just value visual traits. I also value performance traits, and the thing I most value is a good balance of the two trait sets.

I knew going in that I would need a minimum of a five year period to determine what plants had the plant performance traits, as well as breeding value for those traits, that I would desire to perpetuate within a breeding program. I knew that to make those determinations, I would need to test many plant (cultivars and species clones) until I found the handful that expressed those intangible traits I value, breeding value for those traits AND have the ability to produce and reproduce attractive flowers. 

In the series of blog posts I made during the summer of 2016 about ‘The Daylily as Art’, I discussed all my favorite phenotype traits. To be honest, my very favorite flowers are those extremely overdone southern beauties with eyes, triple edges, teeth and patterns, and preferably in some shade of lavender or purple. However, I don’t think that just those are of value or interesting to work with, and I appreciate many ‘less-fancy’ looks. One thing that has been remarkably consistent across all plants and animals that I have worked with is that the most fancy are also often the most inbred, the most difficult to keep and work with, the most difficult to breed from and will almost universally show deleterious traits that have been ignored in the pursuit of the amazing visual combinations seen in such highly selected lines. With that in mind, I knew that what I thought the most visually stunning likely would not be the place to start a breeding program, but rather is an ideal to strive toward, patiently and with care.
And that is just the point. From 2010 to now, I have been establishing a program. Now stop and think about that for a moment. ‘Establishing a program’. What does that mean? Well, it means that I am not looking for the flashiest or most popular, but rather those plants which display and have breeding value for exceptional plant traits as well as nice flowers. If that is combined, in some rare instances, with advanced flower traits, that is a plus, but I knew going in that it wouldn’t be common to find the most advanced flower traits with the most extreme expression of  valuable plant traits.

So what to do? Well, I understand breeding and genetics. What you see isn’t always what you get. Traits can be manipulated, transferred into other genetic backgrounds, improved or salvaged - moving them from a lesser genetic background into a superior one. However, such work can’t be done without having a working knowledge of the performance and breeding value of a few lines, in order to have material for salvage work and the transfer of desirable flower traits onto plants with desirable plant traits.

I also know that in the pursuit of ever greater extremes of flower traits, very few breeders will take the time to go back to the drawing board, starting from scratch to improve a popular trait that is found on a difficult line. So it was almost inevitable that some of the most desirable traits won’t be found on the most robust and desirable plants. That is to be expected, is regular in any hobby breeding (whether plants or animals) and is just a datum to add to any calculations when starting out. It is not an indictment of anyone or their program. 
And that is the point - starting out. Starting out, I was seeking to take the time to grow a large number of cultivars and clones in conditions to reveal their strengths and weakness, to find the specific lines/plants that had the traits (and breeding value for those traits) I want (both plant traits and flower traits) and use that knowledge and experience to establish a breeding base to create a program that can be used in two ways. The first is to simply interbreed within those plants and their seedlings to intensify those desirable traits (whether plant traits, flower traits or both) and the second is to use the best of those lines as outcross/salvage bases for integrating new flower traits from other programs where those plants may have shortcomings in terms of plant trait qualities.

Let me reiterate this point. Everything you have read on my blog to date, everything that I have done up to this point, is in the pursuit of finding the materials to create a breeding base, to create a breeding program. I placed no particular restraints on where to look for such material, so I have grown everything from species clones to old cultivars, all ploidy levels and many conversions, as well as many of the newest and most advanced. In selecting the material to build a breeding base from, I have simply cast my net wide and patiently waited to see what crossed the many hurdles I have set up as a tool of selection for base stock.

Now, as we are into 2017, and I have completed my sixth year of daylily breeding, I have found that base of plants to move forward with in the pursuit of developing my own program. I have tested over 1100 cultivars and clones, and while I could continue this process almost indefinitely, I have more than enough material to work from (in fact, more than I could ever properly work with and explore). So it is time to take the best of those that I have worked with and their best seedlings and move forward. I am now into the third generation with many of my original crosses that proved themselves worthy of continuation, and I have also found a fair number of other good (and a few truly exceptional) plants to begin to integrate into the bases I have already established or to cross onto those cultivars/clones that have shown themselves repeatedly useful over the past six years.
So now at the beginning of the 7th year, I am actually just beginning to start my own breeding program. For a time, this means I won’t be bringing in new plants. Rather I will just be working with the best of what I have, which is probably a job far more vast than I can ever really deal with fully, or explore all the possible avenues available to me through those plants. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t ever be bringing new plants in. I most certainly will and I am always looking at the new introductions of other breeders. Eventually, something will be irresistible, but for now, I will take the next phase of my program to establish a reliable base from which future new accessions can be reliably integrated into my program.

To me, this is a reasonable and expected progression, and while I couldn’t have told you at the start what cultivars would make the cut, I could easily predict the movement through time of how my program would unfold, the stages I would move through and the relative time it would take to reach each point. The overall projection of my breeding program extends out to twenty years, with four points at five years each. The first phase actually took six years. I am now entering the second phase and I can project that phase to extend out for four, five or six years. 

The first phase (phase 1) was about identifying breeding materials from which lines could be developed that would suit my taste in both plant traits and flower traits. This phase was an open phase, in the sense that new plants came in every year, usually spring and fall, and all materials were tested to identify target traits, and used in breeding to test for breeding value of any traits of interest. 

The second phase (phase 2) is about establishing a base of breeding that intensifies desired traits, both plant and flower traits, and combines desired traits into lines, producing lines rich in desired traits, always looking for advances, where any trait, flower or plant, is taken to a new level. This is a closed phase, as no new material will be brought in through the period of this phase. That allows total focus on the selected plants already here, and allows focused exploration on the many possibilities for both plant and flower selection that those selected lines offer. My expectation is that through this phase, further concentration will occur, with some lines falling by the wayside while other lines become central to future efforts.
This second phase is very exciting to me, as for the first time I will be able to make crosses that are basically just about the flower, because I am making those crosses on previously tested base lines that have proven to have desired traits and breeding value for those traits. Up to this point, I have been making crosses with many considerations in mind - the desire to test for multiple traits. Now, I have the experience and information to begin to make crosses with the flower as the main focus, because I know what plant traits I can expect from the plants I grow and have been test mating for breeding value. So now, I begin to move more into the realm of art, as I am standing on a base of experience and knowledge that has been hard-won through years of testing. 

I will continue to apply many of the tests that I have previously used to my seedlings to continue to identify, concentrate and enhance the best genes for plant trait qualities. That is a given, though I will modify the focus of some of those traits and will be working with smaller numbers of seedlings in general. This second phase is about concentrating desirable genes of all kinds - the plant traits and the flower traits. The key to doing this is the result of the first phase - testing for expression of desirable traits and finding those that also have breeding value for those traits. Without the first phase, the second phase would be much more haphazard. I consider my approach to be conservative, patient, grounded in experience and rounded out through a consideration for plant breeding science as well as a love of art.

So what is the point of this second phase? It is to concentrate the best traits I have found through the testing phase. It is a process of focusing. A narrowing and winnowing that allows all my energy to go into lines that have already shown results. It seeks to apply all energy to achieving results, rather than seeking data. The first phase was an information gathering exercise. The second phase is about putting that information into action. 
Other programs may assume different forms, follow different timelines and use other methods. Those are equally valid and each person has to determine what they will do in their own program, and I can only encourage you to think about what you want and how to achieve that, and then follow it. Follow your bliss and your dreams. The daylily world needs every program and every focus.

If you are new to breeding, consider what you really want to achieve. There are two basic divisions - a well rounded program that considers many traits and a program that is singularly focused on one or two traits. These two directions should not be at odds, at war with each other, but recognize that they balance each other and that each can benefit greatly from the other. 

As a final note, I often hear an argument among tetraploid breeders as to whether conversions are a good thing or not. One group says there is already enough tetraploid genetic material and that new conversions are not necessary and may even be detrimental when poor plants are converted and then used liberally by many breeders. The other side says that it is only through the use of conversions that real breaks and advances are made in the tetraploid gene pool.

For my part, I don’t strictly agree with either side of this argument, or rather, I agree with each side somewhat. Perhaps my biggest disagreement with these sides is that I see no need for either side. I see no use for such black-and-white dualisms that in the end only limit everyone. 

For the record, I find conversions useful, but I also recognize that the vast majority of conversions are made strictly because of the flower, and some of those conversions are not great plants. That is fine, but then an over-focus on such converted material can bring hosts of plant problems into the tetraploid gene pool (and this has happened before and will undoubtedly happen again). 

Conversely, there are remarkable programs that have been developed through patient work within a lineage and have never incorporated much converted material. Both methods work and have merit. However, I would suggest that both methods, when used together - line breeding and the judicious use of converted materials - can have a broader, more balanced impact on a given program.
To begin with, line breeding is best done to establish a strong base, to bring together many desirable traits (including, perhaps especially, plant traits) to create a strong, reliable base to bring advanced materials (including converted materials) over. The establishment and use of a reliable base with known breeding value is almost essential to using conversion materials, especially where the conversion was made because of the flower and there may be lesser-quality plant traits to eliminate in those converted lines through judicious outcrossing and selection.

In this way, there is no need for there to be two camps in opposition, but rather, there can be one large community, with each individual playing their own role, in pursuit of improving the flower we all love, for the entire community. There is no one right method to breeding. There are many methods and there is a time, place, use and need for each of them.