pruning roses

January 2nd, 2009
Unnatural Selection

Morticia Addams was my second role-model as a child, a fact that becomes more evident in April when the bluebonnets and larkspur come into flower and I run around the meadow busily snipping off flowers as soon as they open. All winter and early spring I cultivate and nurture my wildflower meadow waiting impatiently for the flowers to open, checking every day, poking at buds. Then. They open. And it’s off with their heads!

My meadow flowers are rampant self-sowers. In the larkspur, especially, there is wide variation. I’m notoriously selective. I save the seed of my favorites and throw out the rest. I hoped, over time, to develop a strain of larkspur that favored the exact conditions of my micro-climate and of the variations I like best.

I used to simply collect the seeds from the plants I liked and cut the ones I didn’t like out before they set seed. Someone laughed at me and said they were probably cross-pollinating anyway. So now I cut off the flowers of the ones less favored as soon as they open.

I always collect and label seed but nature typically has a head start on me so much of what sprouts the next year is from seed I didn’t sow. I do find repetition over the years which makes me think the seed does come true. But there is variation, too, like the strange green-flowered larkspur in 2008 (which unfortunately didn’t set seed).

larkspur seedlings

This year I decided to take a more scientific approach. I sowed the seed in marked rows and I’m transplanting each type together so that I can see if the seed comes true and to what extent.

I’ve always been interested in selective breeding. As gardeners we can pick and choose the characteristics of our open-pollinated plants, keeping those with the characteristics we favor: best flavor, disease-resistance, color, size, early blooming or late bolting. Indeed we reap what we sow. These last 20 years has seen an resurgence of interest over heirloom varieties. Someone (I can’t remember who) made a point about heirlooms that I found quite interesting: the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that I grow is not the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that Thomas Jefferson grew–although it may be a descendant. In each generation we select a few choice tomatoes for their seed and over the generations, they vary (not from mutation but from selection–gardeners and farmers are the intelligent designers). So even the same open-pollinated tomato variety from different sources may differ.

All the larkspur in my garden comes from two sources. The first was a packet from central Texas-based Wildseed Farms (which they label as Delphinium ajacis, rocket larkspur) which I bought at Barton Springs Nursery in 1994. The other was from Select Seeds (so appropriately named!) a selection named ‘Earl Grey‘. The ‘Earl Grey’ has never been silvery or slate grey but always a strange muddy mauve. I thought they’d died out of the garden completely but one or two comes up every year.

larkspur seedlings

I began transplanting my larkspur seedlings on New Year’s Eve….very, very late but it has been so dry and the meadow (and thankfully the weeds) are off to a slow start. Already I’m impatiently waiting to see what will develop.