January 2nd, 2009
Unnatural Selection

pruning roses

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

11 Responses to post “Unnatural Selection”

  1. From Katie:

    Very cool idea! Since we’re now settled in our home and have gardened here a couple years, I too am starting to save seed to select the best of the best hopefully. I like your scientific approach.

  2. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I love your approach to the meadow and how you select the flowers you want to pollinate and set seed. I can just imagine you out there, perhaps appropriately dressed in black, snipping off those flowers! But you still leave enough for a spectacular display, I’ve seen it for myself!

  3. From Frances:

    Great role model, straight hair, dressed in black, she fits in perfectly with the fashion trends of today! Your larkspur-cilantro plantings were awe inspiring at the
    Fling. I have saved my own seed to try and duplicate that, but will have to plant in February for an early summer display. I will look for those color strains to select, thanks for the inspiration!

  4. From Diana - Austin:

    Omigod that’s work! I planted some of your Larkspur today, and have a whole new appreciation for this lovely gift now that I know how diligently you are working to breed the best ones! Thanks again.

  5. From Jenny Austin:

    Come on over to my garden and see if you can decide which of my gazillion larkspur seedlings are keepers. I favor the darker colors and am not crazy about the pinks. If only I knew before they showed their colors. I try to pull out the pinks as someone told me in the end they all revert to pink.

    Ah that’s the frustration and the fun, isn’t it? You can’t know if the ones you’re thinning out aren’t the super special odd one, the Shirley poppy of the bunch. I don’t think it was in your garden but one of the gardens on the Master Gardeners tour had many sherbet-colored larkspur, very different looking than mine. I don’t like oranges or pinks. I favor pure, deep purple, a silvery blue, two-toned bunny-ears, white with purple edges, and plum-colored doubles. — mss

  6. From Dee/reddirtramblings:

    I enjoyed the thought about you running about the meadow snipping off errant larkspur a la Morticia. It is deliciously oxymoronic, which is why the cartoons and the show were so popular.

    And, from another standpoint, I salute you for working so hard to get the results you want. Hoping that all your larkspur germinate in the colors you want this spring.~~Dee

  7. From Kim in Maryland:

    I liked this post, and I like your approach. I wait to see the results of your planting.

  8. From Annie in Austin:

    If there’s an afterlife, Gregor Mendel must be smiling at you from wherever.
    We knew about your seed saving, but the rows take it to a new level!

    I saved seeds from those mutant, 6-foot ruffled lavender larkspur. They’re somewhere around here. Maybe they’ll still grow if planted now.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Give it a shot. I’m still sowing mine. Any Austinites who want some larkspur seeds, I still have a jar full. — mss

  9. From Amy:

    What a fun and interesting experiment. I hope you post about the results later in the year – I would love to see how this turned out.

  10. From Carol at Lost Valley Gardens:

    Nice post! Both humerous and informative. You are to be commended for your systematic approach to solving your dilemma. Compliments also for the clear explanation and helpful photos.

    Can’t wait to see what the results are. – Carol

  11. From Angelina:

    Oh you’ve got me all excited about my wildflower seeds! I don’t have many/any wildflowers in my new garden and what I most look forward to is the rampant reseeding they do all over the place. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than flowers that pop up randomly all over the place.

    the selecting process is also very interesting. I can’t wait to see your results too. You are so much more methodical than myself, I think you would make a great breed selector/creator.