National Floriculture Forum By Rick Schoellhorn

In Columbus, Ohio, on February 21-23, The Ohio StateUniversity, the American Floral Endowment (AFE) and a group of nationalsponsors hosted the National Floriculture Forum (NFF). This event changeslocation and subject matter each year, and 2003 focused on ornamental plantbreeding programs and germplasm resources in the United States. Because theseprograms have such a huge impact on what new crops are available each year, Ithought I’d take a break from talking about crops this month and give you anoverview of what was discussed at this meeting and how it may impact thebreeding and discovery of new crops in the future.

Definitions and Introductions

The main sponsor of this event is the AFE, the leading,not-for-profit, non-governmental source for floricultural/environmentalhorticulture research and development funding in the United States. Attendeesat NFF include national and regional industry representatives, floriculture andhorticulture researchers from universities across the United States andresearchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and theAgricultural Research Service (ARS), along with members of the American Associationof Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (AABGA) and representatives of the NationalGreenhouse Manufacturers Association (NGMA). If you have survived the barrageof acronyms, we’ll move on…

So, what is germplasm? It is the pool of genetic material(in the form of plants, seeds, cuttings and tissue) that is maintained for usein research and breeding efforts around the world. Germplasm is maintained byall of the above groups for research programs, breeding programs and thepreservation of endangered species. Because in commercial breeding programs itis all too easy to lose disease resistance or stress tolerance when searchingfor the largest fruit or most dynamic flower, keeping this bank of geneticmaterial in reserve allows plant breeders to request ancestral plants and usethem to bring back valuable traits that might otherwise be lost. The kinds ofgermplasm maintained varies by location, facility and the type of agency thatcontrols it.

New plants. New plants come from breeding programs andintroduction programs around the world. Each of the agencies above plays somerole in the breeding, development, introduction or preservation of ornamentalcrops.

There are many factors that affect how quickly a plant canbe released to the industry. Some plants are released as soon as productionmeets minimum market needs; others must go through the patenting process, whichmay add a few years onto the release dates. Traditional breeding programs takethe longest time between idea and new product, simply because of the timeinvolved in breeding and selecting new cultivars and building a seed inventorylarge enough to meet demand.

Agencies and new plants. Private industry may use seed froma USDA facility in its breeding programs so it can regain some of the diseaseresistance found in ancestral plants. A university researcher may request plantmaterial from a botanic garden preservation program because harvesting from thewild is illegal. New plants come from each of the groups attending NFF as wellas from collaborative efforts between groups.

Who stores Germplasm

USDA/ARS. Thesegovernmental programs have an extensive network of germplasm storage facilitiesthroughout the United States (including the new ornamentals facility at TheOhio State University), as well as a network of Plant Materials Centersinvolved in releasing plant material to the industry. Major storage facilitiesare in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and other locations.

Botanic gardens.Each botanic garden will have a different group(s) of plants it focuses on;usually with fairly specialized collections. These collections will often notbe the plants on display at the garden, but maintained separately in closedgreenhouses, especially in the case of endangered species.

Universities. Aroundthe United States, both grant-funded and private-breeding efforts maintaincollections of plant materials for specific research.

Private industry.Industry often maintains large collections of germplasm used in their ownbreeding programs. As these breeding programs are corporate based, they are notusually available to other agencies, although the releases from these programsmay find their way back into the system.

Individual collectors.Private individuals are often responsible for some of the major breakthroughsin plant breeding. Because individual breeders may put decades into theirprograms but not release material to the industry, they are often invisible.This area of germplasm preservation is probably the one least understood. Asthe rush for new plant materials has increased, many of these privatecollections have been purchased or patented into the industry, but more remainhidden.

Plant Breeding Locations

There are basically two different outlets for breeding programs:the consumer side, where new cultivars are marketed to the public; andresearch-based breeding efforts, where releases are made to the industry forimprovement of their own breeding. It is unfortunate that this research-basedbreeding gets so little press among consumers, as some of the greatest work ofour age has been done in the improvement of food crops as well as in ornamentalefforts through this channel.

USDA/ARS.Historically, the USDA has engineered development of many food crops and conductedbreeding efforts towards solving problems with disease and pest issues on bothfood and ornamental crops. Its breeding efforts are ongoing.

Botanic gardens.Many botanic gardens around the world have active breeding programs; however,most are oriented at preservation of endangered species and environmentalissues rather than new plant development, although many commercial selectionshave had their basis in botanic collections.

University. Whilecertain universities maintain breeding programs in support of both new cultivarand problem-based programs, lack of support and downsizing have limited thelevel of academic breeding programs. Many universities now have faculty memberswho devote a small portion of their time to breeding efforts, but it may or maynot be funded by or credited to the university.

Private industry.The new-crop boom has stimulated breeding programs throughout the industry,both breeding programs and selection/collection of new crops. Materials frombreeding programs tend to be delivered to the grower with better productioninformation on how to produce the crop. Plants “discovered” andreleased immediately into the industry often arrive with little information onhow to produce the crop, and this can cause problems in production.

Individual collectors.The new-crop boom has also pushed the discovery of individual breedingprograms. The industry is making deals with private breeders for bothcollections and hybrids, as incorporating these collections into the industrycan save a lot of time in the release of new cultivars. Many of these privatecollections come to the industry with a lifetime of breeding work behind themand the ability to revolutionize a given crop or crops.


The one thing that I learned from the NFF gathering thisyear was how much plant breeding goes unnoticed. Dr. Dick Craig of Penn State(also famous for his work in geranium breeding) gave a nice presentation onuniversity breeding programs, outlining how there has been valuable work doneon ornamentals in every state. At the end of the day, I was thinking of howmany private individuals and plant breeders working in vegetable crops, fruitcrops and tropical foliage crops are also dabbling in ornamentals —unknown to the rest of the industry. It seems we all need to learn more aboutwhat is going on in different areas of the business to make sure that the workof all these people sees the light of introduction into the marketplace.

There is a decline in university-based breeding programs asuniversities are pressuring their researchers to find more immediate sources offunding than long-term traditional breeding. So there is reason for concern;our industry reports having a harder time finding university graduates withplant breeding experience. Since it is university graduates, for the most part,that supply the industry with new generations of plant breeders, a big part ofthe forum this year was devoted to looking at how to produce more graduateswith an interest in breeding. In many cases, promising graduates are movinginto molecular genetics instead of traditional breeding. At the University ofFlorida, almost all of our molecular genetics graduate students are also doinga small amount of traditional work.

All things considered, I don’t think there is much to worryabout in terms of new crops and diversity in the near future. All the agenciesI mentioned above move at different speeds and their goals also differ, butthey are all contributing, at least for now, to a healthy germplasm andbreeding network.

The 2003 NFF will be held at Fairchild Tropical Gardens inMiami, Fla., February 20-22, 2004, and the topic will be ImprovingCommunications Among All Branches of National Horticulture.

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Rick Schoellhorn

Rick Schoellhorn is associate professor of floriculture at the University of Florida. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 or E-mail at [email protected]

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