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Producing new plant species can be political

“To produce a new species, that is the secret dream of every passionate gardener!”

— Karel Capek, “The Gardener’s Year,” 1931

Although I would like to think I’m a passionate gardener, I can’t honestly say I have ever harbored the dream of producing a new plant species.

However, reading Czech author Karel Capek’s book, in which he waggishly chronicles his gardening experiences throughout the year, certainly sparked an interest in the plant breeding history of Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic).

I came across an interesting YouTube video that features Adam Baros, a perennial plant specialist at the Silva-Tarouca Research Institute for Landscape and Ornamental Gardening outside of Prague. The research institute is located amid more than 600 acres of parkland created in 1885 by a count of Portuguese heritage named Arnost Emanuel Silva-Tarouca.

The count founded and presided over the Austro-Hungarian Dendrological Society from 1908 until 1918. He is highly regarded for expanding the availability of ornamental plant species in Czechoslovakia from other European countries and for spearheading the introduction of many new cultivars through breeding programs.

Under Silva-Tarouca’s leadership, the Dendrological Society was particularly focused on breeding primulas. One hybrid, P. x pruhoniciana (named after the village where the count’s castle and parks are located), is a cross between P. juliae and P. vulgaris. Bred in 1918, it is the only extant primrose cultivar from Silva-Tarouca’s era.

After the count died in 1927, the estate was sold to the government, and the research institute was established in what is now called Pruhonice Park. Considered one of the most beautiful public parks in the Czech Republic, it features thousands of different species of native and exotic flowers, trees and shrubs. Nearby is the Dendrological Garden, a public park that also is an experimental test site for the research institute.

According to Baros, Czech citizens have not always had easy access to a wide variety of ornamental plants. During the “Iron Curtain” era, which lasted from 1945 to 1991, plant breeding programs virtually ended, and Czechoslovakian public spaces were planted with monocultures of annual bedding plants. Czech gardeners lost their practical knowledge of growing perennials, Baros said.

However, since 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the new Czech Republic has experienced a horticultural revival — what Baros calls a “flower age.”

Within the past decade, in particular, Czechs have become keenly interested in the concept of more naturalistic gardens using a mixture of perennial flowers and grasses. Baros and his associates have successfully promoted the use of a variety of low-maintenance perennial plants in public spaces aimed at increasing biodiversity.

The research institute’s Dendrological Garden showcases 31 different perennial plant mixtures that can be used under a variety of planting conditions, including dry garden areas and shady areas.

Baros’ research shows the range of perennial plants used in the Czech Republic increased from 680 to 1,800 species between 2005 and 2019. Public interest in perennial plants has led to establishing new nurseries to meet the demand.

In addition, the research institute has developed hundreds of new plant cultivars that are distributed worldwide, including primulas, tulips, chrysanthemums, asters, gladioli, petunias, pelargoniums, kalanchoes, gerberas, dianthus and impatiens. More than 300 cultivars of dahlias have been developed in the last 25 years, Baros said.

I learned dahlias have special meaning for the Czechs. During the early to mid-19th century, a cultural movement was underway, which would become known as the Czech National Revival, to restore the Czech language, culture and identity.

The movement culminated in an armed revolt, called the Prague Uprising of 1848. Leading up to the conflict, a group of Czech nationalists — teachers, priests, intellectuals and other prominent figures — met under the disguise of a dahlia club. The group was called the Dahlia Circle, and several of its members became accomplished at growing dahlias as a front for their illicit activities.

Karel Capek was no stranger to political agitation. Besides “The Gardener’s Year,” he wrote many politically charged articles that opposed the rise of fascism and communism in Europe. Even in his garden book, Capek subtly brings up politics.

He writes, “[I]t may be that there is, or that there will develop, a special communistic flora, or a flora of the Liberal Party … every political party could choose its own flora!”

In fact, flowers have been adopted as symbols for political affiliations all over the world. Examples include carnations and roses for social democracy/democratic socialism, sunflowers for green politics and a four-leaf clover for agrarianism.

Returning to Capek’s statement in the opening quote, producing new plant species has become more politically charged within the past three decades. An increasing number of cultivars are patented, which restricts propagating them, and controversy surrounding genetic modification of plants continues in the United States and Europe.

However, cross-breeding plants from your garden is not difficult once you know the reproductive parts of a flower. In the center of the flower, look for the stamens (filaments that look like slender stalks). These are the male reproductive organs, which are topped with pollen-bearing anthers. In a flower with both male and female parts, the stamen will surround the female reproductive organ, called the pistil. The pistil consists of an ovary at the bottom, a tube called the style and a stigma on top.

Some plants produce “perfect” flowers, with male and female parts, while other flowers have only male or only female parts. If the parent plant you choose to be the female has a perfect flower, then trim off the stamens to prevent self-pollination. Use a Q-tip or small paintbrush to transfer pollen from the anther of the male flower/part to the stigma of the female flower.

Cover the flower with a plastic bag and label it with both parents. Once the flower produces fruit/seeds, collect them and store after the seeds are completely dry.

Be aware that to produce a new hybrid plant, the two parent plants must be different varieties of the same species or two species that are in the same genus. Some flowers that are easier to cross include daylilies, true lilies, bearded iris, nasturtiums, petunias, snapdragons, violas and zinnias. Some vegetables that are easier to cross include corn, tomatoes, cucurbits and brassicas.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.