Tissue Culture: The Science of Plant Perfection By Brandi D. Thomas

Stuck on seed? For better plant uniformity, clean stock and year-round availability, you might want to give tissue culture a try.

Does “tissue culture” sound like some kind ofscary governmental experiment that reeks of conspiracy and distrust? For those whodon’t quite understand what it’s all about and wonder how it differs from seed,the benefits are many. First, the plants are clonal, making them the same asthe parent plant (with selection in the lab when necessary), which meansthere’s less chance your crop will turn out looking uneven, lopsided orotherwise just plain bad; for many perennials and specialty spring crops whereviruses pose a greater threat, the tissue culture process is important to cleanup the stock so virus-free liners can be sent to customers, avoidingunnecessary losses of plant material and profits; plants can be multiplied morequickly than with traditional methods; and most varieties can also bepropagated year-round, whereas with other methods, propagation is limited tocertain seasons. All of that can only mean one thing. Well, two things. First,you stand to make a higher profit off of tissue culture plants for all of thereasons cited above, and second, you should continue reading to gain a fullerunderstanding of the intricate process involved in creating these plants.

A lesson in Tissue culture

The best lessons are learned from the experts, and Tigard,Ore.-based Terra Nova has gained prominence in recent years for its tissueculture-produced perennials. Co-owner Ken Brown’s expertise with tissue culturewas all self-taught during the days of Terra Nova’s nascence, with the firstexperiments taking place in an aquarium. Today, the company has twolaboratories, one in Tigard, where all the virus-indexed stock plants are maintained,and one in Canby, Ore., where the research and development takes place. A newplants manager begins the tissue culture process and conducts experiments todetermine the path to successful propagation at the larger lab in Canby. Acytogeneticist, whom Terra Nova brought to the United States from India, alsoworks in this lab practicing embryo rescue. There are six other employees atthis location and two employees in Tigard.

Terra Nova tests each plant against 18 of the most nefariousviruses in the industry to ensure clean stock. Walking into the lab, one beginsto understand the company’s seriousness about protecting against virus and/orinsect scourges; a sealed entry shelters the main lab from the outdoors, andneither the door from the outside into the vestibule nor the door into the labcan be open at the same time. Once inside the entry, shoes must either beremoved or protected with hospital-type shoe covers. Only then is entrypermitted.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit a tissue culturelab, doing so is highly recommended to gain an appreciation for the work thatgoes into creating one of these plants. The process Á requires greatprecision and patience. Once a stock plant has been selected, the newestvegetative buds are collected from the plant. They are then washed and trimmedto very small sizes, and sterilized using bleach solutions, which turn thediminutive plants black. Although the black color gives the appearance of somesort of necrosis, life continues at the center of the bud. Once sterilized, theexplants, or sterilized pieces of plant buds, are planted onto medium untilthey begin to grow. Explants and their medium are contained in tubs that comepresterilized via gamma radiation. For the next stage, the plants are placed ona medium containing cytokinins, or plant hormones, to help them multiply. Mostplants are cut and transferred to new medium about once per month, yieldinganywhere from 2:1 to 6:1. When plants are being created for sale, the number ofdesired cuttings is placed on a media containing auxins to help the plantsroot. Once rooted, the batch of plants is sent out to Terra Nova’s greenhouses,where they are planted and grown out for shipping.

Rooted plants are placed in 72-cell packs on rolling benchesthat can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Hot water hoses beneath the benches keep thetemperature at 70° F, and everything is hand-watered. They are weaned atthis stage for six weeks before being moved to a shade house for hardening off.Every plug is handled twice before shipping, a quality control measure thatTerra Nova prides itself on.

Once a new plant moves to the production stage, theprotocols and the plants move to one or more of Terra Nova’s contract labslocated around the world. “We place the plants with the labs we know canproduce the best-quality plants and consistently deliver them on time. Over theyears, we have worked with many organizations to produce our plants and havemade great strides in finding out the ones that give us good-quality plantswhen we need them,” Brown said. Two of these are in New Zealand andIndonesia.

A Perfect Pair

It was through a series of serendipitous situations thatTerra Nova co-owners Ken Brown and Dan Heims eventually became known to theworld as innovators of tissue culture perennials. Brown, a somewhat shy butastute man, studied microbiology with minors in both chemistry and psychologyat Oregon State University, becoming interested in plants during the last yearof his career there. By the time he graduated, he had 350 houseplants. Heims,the more dramatic and gregarious of the two, attended the University of Oregon,where he graduated with a major in communications and minors in botany andlandscape. After college, Brown joined the Indoor Light Gardening Society,where he met Heims, who at that time had his own indoor plant business, ExoticPlants Unlimited. While working at the OSU medical school doing research, Brownmet a co-worker who had some Á unusual plants kept in a laboratorywindow. She turned out to be Heims’ girlfriend and later wife, Lynne. Both menmarried, and though they remained friends, eventually pursued other interests.

A few years later, while Brown was intently focused onfinding daylilies for his garden in a field, he smelled something that wouldhelp determine the future paths of both men. It was Hosta plantaginea. Pursuinghis newfound love, Brown joined the Northwest Hosta Society, which,coincidentally, Heims had founded. By late 1992, the reunited men had createdTerra Nova and began building their tissue culture lab in Brown’s backyard.Without having posted any advertising, help appeared: A woman who just happenedto have 10 years’ experience in tissue culture knocked on their door wanting toknow if they needed an employee. “Things like that just started happening– people showing up, situations falling in our lap that would make thingshappen,” Brown explained.

Their first catalog consisted of a color flyer tucked insidethe B&B Laboratories catalog; B&B was responsible for Terra Nova’sshipping and growing at the time. Their first growing areas were found in thewindowless basement of a bookstore, where they could only work late in theevening or very early in the morning to avoid upsetting the grocery store whoseparking lot the bookstore shared. Both men also held other jobs at the time,with Brown working as a food technologist at Armour Food Co., and Heims as theowner of a landscaping company.

By 1993-94, Terra Nova was finally housed in truegreenhouses, and operations went smoothly for about nine months, until highwater salinity began wreaking havoc on their plugs. To solve the problem, Heimsand Brown bought a reverse-osmosis unit that had to run all night, rattling thewater pipes and making for very unpleasant sleeping conditions for the propertyowner renting them the greenhouse. After two months of poor rest, the TerraNova progenitors were asked to leave. “I don’t blame him,” Brownsaid. “That’s when we bought the place in Canby, and things have been goingever since.”

Making it with Marketing

Terra Nova produces approximately 50 new varieties everyyear — from hostas and heucheras to euphorbias and ferns — which means theyare working on up to 100 plants at any given time. As the “frontman”and company president, Heims travels and channels his charismatic personalityinto speaking and promoting Terra Nova and its plants. He is also responsiblefor the catalog and manages the breeders. Complementing Heims’ marketingefforts, Brown, the secretary of the corporation, is the operations manager. Ashe explains it, “I do the operations, I make things work, I build things,I run the greenhouses, the laboratories and the business, except for thefinancials, which, if not for our controller, we wouldn’t be here.” JodyBrown is the controller, Ken’s wife and a quarter-owner of the company, as isLynne, Heims’ wife, who is the contract manager.

For the past seven years, Terra Nova has had aconsumer-directed Web site, www.terranovanurseries.com, a pull-throughmarketing device that gets consumers to ask their garden centers for Terra Novaplants. Terra Nova also supports its wholesale customers through apassword-protected area in the site — the username is “wholesale”and the password is “sneeky” — where price lists, plant availability,culture and ordering information can be found. They recently started a taggingprogram that links the consumer back to the site, their marketing programs andHeims’ speaking engagements. “It’s hard to miss the tags — they stand outin the pot,” said Brown. “The customer will identify us, or that tag,as being a new plant. It’s providing a service to our customers, who would notnormally have tags or nice tags for a new plant.” Tags cost $0.12 and areprinted by Norwood, an Australian marketing leader.

Always thinking, creating and innovating, Terra Nova iscurrently in the process of expanding. They just purchased another piece ofproperty in the heart of their other properties for a new sales office andlaboratory. “Terra Nova’s always expanding — if there’s one thing that’salways constant, it’s change. The breeding programs are really starting toblossom now,” Brown said.

Marketing is helping to educatemore and more gardeners on the advantages of tissue culture,driving demand and, consequently, the need for expansion. Other tissue culturecompanies, such as Apopka, Fla.-based Twyford International Inc., are also inthe midst of expansion, amplifying their product lines and constructing newgrowing and research facilities. Supplier growth is frequently an indicator ofmarket direction — paying attention to these trends now can ensure your buyingdecisions are helping your business rather than hindering it.

Brandi D. Thomas

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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