Utilizing high tech to bring native perennials to the marketplace

Within the ornamental sector, an ever-evolving environmental movement has resulted in the demand for more ecologically responsible plants and plant production techniques. The demand for low-maintenance, drought resistant, low-input plants has converged with the trend to the use of more natives and pollinator plants in our gardens and landscapes.  However, as any garden centre owner or landscape designer knows all too well, aesthetic attributes on the sale’s bench or in the landscape plan are all-important.  And, from the perspective of greenhouse growers, cost-effective propagation and production technologies are an absolute must if these otherwise desirable plants are to find a way to the consumer’s garden.

Exploring a variety of integrated systems designed to overcome the obstacles that are generally associated with the efficient production of native species, “Integrated techniques for efficient breeding, production and transplant survival of unique ornamental species” is an ambitious research project currently underway at the University of Guelph.  This project is part of the Cluster Project and is funded by the Canadian Ornamental Horticulture Alliance (COHA-ACHO) and by the Government of Canada under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriScience Program.

Bringing these diverse and lofty goals to this project is achievable largely through a unique collaboration of expertise and facilities.  Leading the project, Dr. Alan Sullivan has over 25 years of experience in horticultural breeding with the past 10 years focused on breeding and physiology of native ornamental species that are tolerant to low water and low nutrient conditions.

The project’s co-lead, Dr. Praveen Saxena, has spent 25 years working with stakeholders of the floriculture and horticulture sectors to develop efficient protocols for rapid in vitro multiplication of a diverse range of ornamental and medicinal plants.  Dr. Saxena is also the director of the GRIPP Institute, a University of Guelph based organization led by himself and Dr. Sullivan dedicated to the preservation of endangered plant species. GRIPP makes some sophisticated facilities available to this project, including cryopreservation technologies.

With a goal of developing improved varieties and germplasm of existing plant species that already exhibit the required environmental and aesthetic attributes, the project relies on the expertise of Rodger Tschanz, manager of the University’s ornamental trial garden program.  Rodger’s many years of on-the-ground supervision of various trial garden programs and other related horticultural projects makes him uniquely qualified to help identify native plants with superior ornamental qualities that are adapted to environmentally challenging conditions.

Focused on two impressive goals – the accelerated breeding and introduction of exiting new perennial plants to the marketplace, together with the development of efficient propagation and production technologies – both Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Saxena are equally excited about the potential economic impact to all sectors of the ornamental industry.  “It is our goal to make available to the Canadian ornamental industry a whole new selection of commercially available native plants that support a strong marketplace trend,” said Dr. Sullivan.

Although off to a promising start, keeping the project on track during the COVID-19 shutdown has proven to be a challenge for Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Saxena.  “The COVID impacts were severe,” noted Dr. Sullivan.  “We are grateful to the University for their positive response to our various applications to continue our research, even on a limited basis, as we had plants that had come out of cold storage and were coming into flower for crossing if we were to keep the project alive and somewhat on track.”

The project team is now coping with a number of unforeseen expenses.   Additional greenhouse space is required to accommodate social distancing requirements, and extra costs incurred for more vehicles and trips due to COVID restrictions continue to mount.  These unanticipated costs are nonetheless a far better scenario than the alternative of having to start over again.

With some ingenuity and creative solutions, the first objective of the project remains on track.   Employing both traditional and advanced breeding methods, new and improved varieties of pre-selected species will be developed and further trialled in the UofG trial garden network.   The 10 species selected for this program, include Lobelia, Helinium, Physotegia, Allium, Penstemon, Monarda and Aquilegia.  Not included on the original plant list, Dr. Saxena is excited that he has since secured several native and exotic orchid species to add to the collection.

Dendrobium spp. in culture currently being used to develop orchid propagation technology.

Efficient production will be key to ensuring commercial success of these new varieties.  Drawing on research results and resources made available through GRIPP, a variety of approaches will be utilized, including an expansion of research already underway to study the ability of indolamines compounds to enhance plant growth and survival.  Optimized tissue culture propagation systems will improve mass production efficiency and cryopreservation techniques will help in biobanking of important genotypes of endangered and horticulturally important species.

As Dr. Saxena pointed out, despite its devasting impacts, the pandemic has brought a whole new focus to the importance of our homes and our gardens.  “A look at the impact of COVID on home gardening shows the importance of ornamental horticulture.  New varieties and especially those that meet our demand for ecologically sound plants will be important to drive the sector into the future.”

Organization: University of Guelph

Research team:

Dr. Alan Sullivan, Professor, Plant Agriculture

Dr. Praveen Saxena, Professor, Plant Agriculture, and Director of GRIPP

Rodger Tschanz, Technician, Manager UofG Trial Garden

Penstemon hirsutus
Aquilegia canadensis
Lobelia siphilitica
Allium cernuum
Lobelia cardinalis