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Breeding Hydrangeas - How better Plants are Made

When you see a new Proven Winners® ColorChoice® shrub online or in your local garden center, you may not know everything it took for it to get there. That little shrub had to produce some pretty unique qualities to earn its place in a Proven Winners® white pot.

Contributors: Megan Mathey

Maybe it’s a hydrangea that is more colorful and compact, or a barberry that isn’t invasive, or a more disease-resistant rose. It had to run through a gauntlet of tests to prove it would perform exceptionally well, year after year, in a myriad of conditions. It’s a long process that begins with great deal of care and expertise.

Home of Proven Winners® Color Choice® Shrubs, Spring Meadow Nursery houses a large internal breeding program, of which I am proud to be a part, along with many national and international plant breeders. Being a plant breeder, for an industry leader, is literally a dream job. Many people ask, “Why is there a need for breeders?” and, “Why do we need new plants?”. I tend to answer by saying plant improvement is limitless, there is always a drive for betterment. Our landscapes and food supply would be drastically different if humans stopped breeding plants 100, 50, or even just 10 years ago.

Being a plant breeder brings together the need for many skills; one needs to be a horticulturist, taxonomist, cytologist, geneticist, optimist, dreamer, and artist. The hardest part about plant breeding is looking at an already great plant and asking the difficult question, “How can this be better?”. One of my favorite quotes is actually a book title, A Feeling for the Organism written by Evelyn Fox Keller. This sentiment resonates with me specifically as a plant breeder because often times there is a certain gut feeling, connection, intuition, and understanding we have with a particular plant that helps us guide it through the trialing process to introduction.

 

Let’s take a journey to explore the world of plant breeding!

One the of things I get asked all the time is, “There are so many panicle hydrangeas on the market, why do you keep introducing more?” Think of it this way, if you had the same phone or car that you had 20 years ago, don’t you think you’d be missing out on all of the new features that the latest models have to offer?

The classic and most well-known Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, was actually bred and selected over 35 years ago and has been on the market for about 20 years. ‘Limelight’ is an amazing plant; it has large mophead panicles that open pale green and age to light pink, all the while towering over the plant on well supported, stiff stems. However, it takes a plant breeder to ask, “How can this be better?”

To answer this, not all landscapes and small yards can support the glory that is ‘Limelight’. So, breeders have worked to bring the size down, but maintain the attributes that make ‘Limelight’ so wonderful. This first improvement came in the form of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Jane’ Little Lime® which was introduced roughly eight years after ‘Limelight’. The height was drastically reduced from the average height of 6-8’ in ‘Limelight’ to just 3-5’ in Little Lime®.

Breeding is a continual and incremental process and, especially when involving shrubs, one that takes many years. Often times, it can take three years or longer for a Hydrangea paniculata to go from seed to making its first flowers. Once a seedling is selected, it spends at least three to four years in our extensive trialing process. To keep the breeding moving forward, we continue to make traditional crosses every year. Simply, this means selecting the plants we would like to use as parents and moving pollen from the male parent to pollinate the female parent, making controlled crosses.

This cycle is repeated yearly; pollinations, generating thousands of seedlings, and making numerous selections to trial. It is very rare to just cross two plants and be lucky enough to have an introduction-worthy selection in one generation. Plant breeding builds upon each generation of seedlings, making the improvements necessary for a plant to be worthy of an introduction. As long as there is a trait that can be selected for to make a plant better, unique, or fill a void, there is a need for breeding and breeders.

Spring Meadow Nursery has been breeding Hydrangea paniculatas since first introducing ‘Limelight’. We’ve evaluated thousands of seedlings, looking for the most desirable traits, like strong stems, disease resistance, impressive flower color, and useful habits. It’s with those characteristics in mind that we breed new plants. And it’s through this process of evaluation, breeding, and extensive trialing, that truly revolutionary plants are made.

 

I would like to introduce you to four of them.

 

Fire Light Tidbit® – At just 2-3’ tall and wide, this is a perfect little hydrangea for containers or the front of the border. Its late-season blooms start out bright lime green, transition to white, and quickly take on hues of bright, dragon fruit pink. As a bonus, it will often give you a nice display of orange-red autumn foliage.

 

Quick Fire Fab® – This show-stopper has large, densely packed, upright, football-shaped blooms with a remarkable color show. Flowers start out coconut-lime and watermelon hues quickly flush at the base of the bloom and darken as they work their way up towards a contrasting lime-green tip. This is a fabulous 6-8’ tall, upright garden plant that holds its bottom-to-top blooms with ease and elegance.

 

Limelight Prime® - It’s smaller in stature than ‘Limelight’, at 4-6’ tall. It tends to have a more upright vase habit which holds its vibrant flowers high above the plant. Its big, panicle flowers open a strong green and stay green longer; then age to deep raspberry punch pink. Of course, it also has the strong stems and healthy dark green foliage you’d expect from a hydrangea with ‘Limelight’ in its name.

 

And finally, Little Lime Punch. This one won’t be available until 2022, but you may want to leave space for it in your garden. It’s similar to Little Lime® hydrangea with its useful, compact stature of just 3-5’ – the emerging lime-green blooms are similar too, but it differs as the flowers transition to pink. As new blooms emerge you’ll get a festive mix of pink, green, white, and Hawaiian punch-red blooms all on the same plant. It's hard to describe, but this hydrangea just makes you feel happy.

Making gardeners more successful is our goal. And that consideration starts years before one of our plants ends up in your hands. It starts with our breeding team, and I hope finishes with you, as our shrubs become a beautiful part of your life.

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