Georgina Werner wants her husband to make her a tree. Not just any tree. She has a beautiful Texas “Traveller” redbud (Cercis canadensis “traveller”) in her front yard, but she thinks it would be nicer if it had purple leaves. The problem is “Traveller” redbud trees aren’t purple but green and they don’t produce viable seeds. An impossible barrier except Georgina is married to Dr. Denny Werner, renowned redbud breeder at NC State University. Denny believes that with enough time, patience and a little luck his wife may get her tree.
People have been breeding plants to produce useful and sometime strange results for thousands of years. Science has given plant breeders powerful new tools to combine DNA to produce novel plants. But it takes a creative eye to look at a plant and imagine the possibilities.
However creative possibilities won’t end up for sale. It takes many years to develop a plant with the right combination of traits to finally make it to the garden center and ultimately your landscape. Using his popular ‘Ruby Falls’ redbud as an example, Werner described the process for bringing it to the marketplace.
Back in the late 1990s, Werner, and his research partner Lane Snelling, identified two redbud trees that they felt had traits that if combined into a single tree would resonate with the market. So they began the process of cross-pollinating the parent trees, collecting seeds, growing up the young trees and screening for desirable traits. Four years and hundreds of trees later they had narrowed the possibilities down to four individual trees that they felt embodied the ideal traits they wanted.
Turning four young trees into thousands for the market is beyond the scope of what Werner’s program can do on campus. That’s where plant propagators come in. In the case of the “Ruby Falls” redbud Denny sent wood from his trees to Hidden Hollow Nursery in Belvidere, Tennessee. They specialize in propagating redbuds by grafting onto reliable rootstock.
Even with their decades of experience and expertise it took Hidden Hollow Nursery two years before they could transform Werner’s material into trees that are ready to be sold as bareroot trees to wholesale nurseries. These nurseries grow the trees in 7 or 15-gallon pots and eventually sell them to landscapers or garden centers, where you can purchase them for their landscape. It took nearly a decade to produce young trees that embodied the original idea and then another four to five years to produce market-ready plants.
Which brings us back to Georgina Werner. Denny said he thinks she will get her tree explaining, “Awhile back we got very lucky and we found one pod on the ‘Traveller’ tree in my front yard. And when that pod matured I opened it up and there was one seed in there which I was able to germinate. I had one seedling and we’re using that in crosses now. So that will unlock the ability to produce a whole repertoire of ‘Traveller’ type redbuds with different flower colors and different leaf colors. That one seed has opened up a whole opportunity to develop a unique range of redbuds.”
If this one seed follows the path of other redbuds in Werner’s program it may find its way to a garden center near you. All we need is time, patience and a little luck.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: email@example.com.