Plant breeders comprise the first, essential step in the Must Have Perennials® supply chain. Breeders create and innovate gorgeous and garden-worthy perennial plant varieties that are eventually sold on store shelves around the world. One of the breeders we have had the opportunity to work with on some great garden showstoppers is The Primrose Path.
Charles and Martha Oliver own and operate The Primrose Path in Scottdale, PA just southwest of Pittsburgh. Many people know this region of the state for its extremes of heat, cold and unreliable rainfall. However, this makes it an ideal place to test perennial garden hardiness. The Olivers founded The Primrose Path as a mail-order sales business in 1985. Today, the Olivers serve as the breeders and selectors of the Primrose Path™ line of perennials.
Heuchera, Tiarella and Heucherella
Their award-winning breeding program is currently focused primarily on Phlox varieties, but they have also introduced great-performing Must Have Perennials varieties such as Heuchera ‘Steel City’. The Olivers are also published authors, having written “Heuchera, Tiarella and Heucherella: A Gardener’s Guide” in 2006. This is a great resource for novice gardeners and pros alike!
The Olivers recently spoke to us about their breeding and selection process and the insights they’ve gleaned over 30 years in the business.
How did you get your start in plant breeding?
We started in 1985 as a mail-order nursery raising native plants from seed. Within a couple of years, we found that some of the plants in our stock beds, especially the heucheras, were crossing, and we were getting interesting hybrids in the seedlings we were growing. This led us to a planned breeding program with heuchera and tiarella using a wide variety of wild species. No one else was doing this at all at the time. We and Dan Heims were the first to begin heuchera breeding.
Can you tell us about your breeding process?
We try to have as much control as possible over the breeding process and to keep accurate records. This way, we can repeat really productive crosses and more material with desirable traits is available for selection. We keep our potted breeding stock in a screened building to prevent wild pollination and move pollen to do the crosses by hand with a brush.
Luckily, the plants we have worked with are self-incompatible, so self-pollination has not been a worry. We sow the seed fresh and have seedlings ready to pot up individually the next spring. Usually these will bloom the first year, so selection for desirable traits begins then and continues for several years.
When did you build your TC (tissue culture) lab and what sort of impact did it have on your breeding?
At first, we listed and sold new selections, intentional hybrids and a range of desirable selections from our seedlings of several native species. We were working up stock by division and cuttings. By the mid-90s we decided new plants would be our marketing niche and we needed to find a better way to get more of our selections and hybrids into production.
We did some wholesale production out of the lab for our own customers. However, we were reluctant to make the leap into large-scale wholesale production by ourselves. So, we approached several wholesale marketers and producers including Blooms of Bressingham (now Must Have Perennials) about marketing contracts. At this point we use the TC lab mainly for production of clean trialing stock and for custom orders.
What do you find to be the most satisfying or rewarding aspect of plant breeding?
What is most exciting is to spot a really outstanding plant straight out of the seedling flat. This has happened a couple of times with the heucheras, and these plants have gone on to become our best sellers. When outstanding-looking plants turn out to have superior vigor and grow well in tissue culture, that is very satisfying, and the plants become like beloved pets.
Heuchera ‘Steel City’ is a great garden performer. How did this variety come about?
‘Steel City’ was one of a large group of seedlings from a cross between Heuchera ‘Regina’, an early hybrid with silvery foliage and pink flowers and a superior H. macrorhiza f. purpurea. We planted these out in a trial bed for several years, and ‘Steel City’ was the outstanding plant in terms of appearance and vigor. We used this in several gardens and found that ‘Steel City’ endured and thrived where other heucheras gradually faded away.
What kinds of new things are you working on?
At this point we are concentrating on phlox, especially on Phlox carolina varieties. The taxonomy of these midsize eastern phlox is very confused with no real hope of enlightenment in sight. Several unrelated species, such as Phlox triflora (=Phlox glaberrima ssp. triflora) have traditionally been included under this name and have very different garden requirements. True P. carolina is 1.5 to 2.5 feet tall, blooms May to July, and is essentially mildew-proof. We are currently marketing several new selections.
Learn more about The Primrose Path and their lovely line of perennials at their website: www.theprimrosepath.com.