Bringing a Camellia Seedling to Market, Bobby Green
Babe Ruth, synonymous with baseball, once held the career home run record, but did you know that for decades, he also owned the dubious title of “all time strikeout leader?” Who broke it? A perpetual kid named Mickey Mantle. Had they not swung hard enough to hit so many mammoth home runs, perhaps they would have struck out less often---and we may have forgotten them.
A ballplayer who fails at bat an average of seven times in every ten attempts earns a spot in the Hall Of Fame. The failure rate for producing a great camellia from seed is consistently 999 of 1000. And yet, the thrill of seeing that one-in-a-thousand distinctive flower growing on a healthy shrub is inspiration to keep stepping into the batter’s box each year.
There are two varieties of camellia hybridizers to whom we owe a debt; The flower breeder and the landscape breeder. Plantsman Tom Dodd, Jr. of Semmes, Alabama was the latter. Surprisingly, as late as the 1980s, not much hybridization had been performed within the "hiemalis" sub-group (those C. sasanqua that have C. japonica influence in their genetics) of Camellia sasanqua The best-known "hiemalis", ‘Shi-Shi-Gashira’ and ‘Showa No Sakae’ are examples of plants with the good characteristics of the hiemalis sub-group. Hiemalis cultivars often share traits of double flowers, extended bloom season, increased vigor, and often much red pigment in many flowers. Dodd’s C. sasanqua (hiemalis) cultivars ‘Bonanza’, ‘Reverend Ida’, and ‘Stephanie Golden’ are now widely grown in the Southeast.
My father was a “change purse hybridizer.” Rural men of his generation would typically carry a small leather pouch nestled deeply in khaki pants. At our small retail nursery, in an era where coins still mattered, the change purse doubled as a cash register. We were often allowed to pull the pennies from the Saturday afternoon over laden purse. To an eight year old of the 1960s the change purse contained many mysteries. A three cent stamp; a Mercury head dime; an impossibly small screw that had fallen from now-taped eyeglasses, and always a seed or two taken from an unlikely, but promising source. The seeds were planted by the father and the pennies exchanged for baseball cards at the 1960s conversion rate of one cent to one card.
|Camellia sasanqua 'Sarrel'|
That change purse produced a few camellias we still grow today. Most notably, Camellia sasanqua ‘Sarrel’, (named for my niece) a seedling of ‘Showa No Sakae’, producing peony-form lavender-pink flowers on an informal spreading shrub. The original 1970s seedling is now just five feet tall and 10’ wide. Yet, few have ever heard of this quite useful landscape shrub. In the 1980s I shared the plant with Mr. Dodd. He quickly grew over a thousand a year, all of which were swallowed up by one landscape firm in east Texas. Consequently, other than the satisfied clients of that firm, the plant was not widely appreciated. Today, ‘Sarrel’ is slowly increasing in popularity among landscape designers who value the informal spreading habit.
Dodd, in turn, would freely share with me seedling plants of the hiemalis group. Encouraged by his success, and inspired by our garden full of widely-varying DNA, we began a scattershot approach toward finding new cultivars of Camellia sasanqua, Camellia xvernalis, and camellia hybrids with sasanqua-like characteristics. Several lessons were quickly learned. One: A very high percentage of seedlings were beautiful. Two: you cannot keep them all, and Three: you should not release any that don’t contribute something new to the camellia world and are useful to the garden world. Those lessons came easily. The most difficult education we received was “build a better camellia and the gardening world will not automatically beat a path to your garden gate.”
Consider the case of Camellia japonica ‘Sea Foam’, which was lost in an ocean of new cultivars when it was registered in 1962. In fact it was released with little fanfare being described in Camellia Nomenclature as "White. formal double, upright growth. Introduced in USA by Weisner." That's kind of like describing Julia Roberts as simply "Tall". A little detective work indicates the originator must be J. T. Weisner of Fenandina Beach, Florida. Like so many “new” camellias of its era, until its rediscovery in the early 1990s, it was likely never grown in wholesale quantities. When I happened upon it in a long-abandoned nursery it was competing well for space, towering over its ligustrum and eleagnus rivals. In fact the only competition for the diminishing sunlight was the vigorous, tree-like Camellia japonica ‘Drama Girl’. Yet, year after year the pride of Mr. Weisner bloomed profusely like an undiscovered star smashing home runs in a sandlot. What we had stumbled upon proved to be one of the most vigorous camellias ever grown in a nursery setting with flowers that rival ‘Alba Plena‘ for perfection among whites. Now, some fifty plus years after Mr. Weisner planted the seed, ‘Sea Foam’ is probably the most widely grown white Camellia japonica in the southeast- and deservedly so. Why do I go to such lengths to illustrate a point? Pure serendipity often plays a huge role in what ends up being grown in the garden, plus, without any marketing, one of the best camellias took nearly fifty years to reach gardeners.
“Like farmers we need to learn that we cannot sew and reap the same day.”
There can be no greater teacher of patience than growing and evaluating camellias from seed. It is as solitary an endeavor as bringing the plant to market is a team effort. Let’s take a look at how that evaluation process unfolds at Green Nurseries.
Year one: Freshly harvested seed are planted in September, sown directly into 3” pots. In our zone 8b climate, many germinate before winter, the remaining viable seed, the following spring. By summer, nearly all are shifted into 6” containers. These will continue to grow through October and are overwintered in poly covered houses without supplemental heat.
Year two: The seedlings are evaluated in spring for root mass establishment and repotted into two to five gallon containers. A small percentage will bloom that fall.
Year three: Most seedlings will bloom in the third year, allowing for flower evaluation and an immediate average reduction of 75% of the original plantings. Those plants with flowers showing promise are kept in containers another year to observe growth habits and bud set during the following year. The plants are still too young to determine eventual growth habits.
Year four: At this point one can tell which seedlings have the most possibility. So many variables drive the selection process; bloom season, floriferousness, growth habits. Typically by this point we have kept about 2% of the original 1500 sown seed.
Year five: This is where the real fun begins and details count. The plants are planted in the ground in rows, and carefully cataloged. Everyone has heard of Ruth and Mantle, but my poor head is also filled with useless baseball trivia...such as in 1964, the last heroic year for Mantle and his Yankees, a utility infielder named Phil Linz hit 5 home runs, the most he would hit in any one season of his utility infielder career. He is also known for the improbability of lining a foul ball into the stands and hitting his mother in the head! An incident he and his mother turned into cash in the game show “I’ve got a Secret.” Just for fun, Google “Phil Linz”, a most unremarkable ballplayer who credits his highly successful title insurance career today on “the harmonica incident”, an off-field escapade that spurred the aging and languishing Yankees to one more pennant.
But I digress, greatly. This is only important to the now 74 year old Linz and me. The point is the curse of remembering minutiae can serve you well when keeping accurate records of your camellias' performance. You have to keep a scorecard of the Phil Linz statistics along with the Derek Jeters.
Years six and seven: A small number of cuttings may be taken from each plant. This will allow us to judge (by years eight through ten) the performance of the cuttings within a nursery setting. The camellias appearance as a retail-ready garden center rookie ready to perform in the home garden like a seasoned veteran will depend greatly on its performance in the nursery. The plant must have the ability to bloom well in a container, and yet still retain its vigor; traits not often seen together in many camellias. It must lend itself to container production in a nursery setting. There is no space reserved for prima donnas in a wholesale nursery.
Year eight: We may have one or two all star performers from the original 1500 seeds. Just about the same small ratio as ballplayers who reach the Hall Of Fame. At this point several decisions must be made. Should the plant simply be increased by cuttings to make an initial offering to other nurseries or garden centers or should the plant be patented and/or trademarked?
Plant invention patents have existed since 1930, spurred by the earlier extraordinary work of Luther Burbank. When the law was enacted, Thomas Edison proclaimed, “This will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.” Well, it certainly gave us many Monsantos, but the first patented camellia was Camellia japonica ‘K. Sawada’ in 1941. Sawada, however quickly learned the futility of trying to protect his rights in the camellia-crazed decades to follow. Nowadays, with DNA "fingerprinting" and the licensing of growers to propagate your new “invention”, the expense of the patenting process may be worth the effort.
Most patented plants also carry a trademark name, which is nothing more than a name under which the plant is marketed. Thus our cultivar Camellia sasanqua ‘Green 97-039’ is marketed under the trademark name October Magic® Inspiration®.
Confused yet? Patenting a plant is a not for the faint of heart or those with an aversion to bureaucracy. The considerable expense involved should be contemplated only if the plant is so very different and appealing that it is deemed worthy enough to be grown in large quantities over wide geographic conditions. Most plant breeders partner with firms that specialize in obtaining plant patents and bringing new plants to market.
By year nine and ten we have a good feeling of how many plants to grow for market and enough cutting stock to begin distribution to licensed growers. Though the numbers are initially small, it is amazing, in subsequent years, how exponentially the numbers increase (seemingly in proportion to the advancing arthritis in my hands.) Approximately a decade after inserting that tiny seed into a tiny pot, you may be fortunate enough to see your plant on a garden center shelf, in a pretty pot, accompanied by an equally pretty picture tag and carrying the promise of decades of bloom home to many gardens.
The entire process is sometimes ruthless and will include a number of errors; long and loud fall balls, and many strikeouts. It can last longer than Mickey Mantle’s eighteen year career with the New York Yankees. In those years the Mick managed to break the Bambino’s strikeout record while recording some of the most mammoth (non-steroidal) home runs the game has seen. The strikeouts are long forgotten. It’s the home runs we remember. Keep swinging!