Plant breeders comprise the first, essential step in the Must Have Perennials supply chain. Breeders create and innovate gorgeous and garden-worthy perennial plant varieties that are eventually sold on store shelves around the world. One of the breeders we have had the opportunity to work with on some great garden showstoppers is The Primrose Path.
Charles Oliver and Martina Oliver
Charles and Martha Oliver own and operate The Primrose Path in Scottdale, PA just southwest of Pittsburgh. Many people know this region of the state for its extremes of heat, cold and unreliable rainfall. However, this makes it an ideal place to test perennial garden hardiness. The Olivers founded The Primrose Path as a mail-order sales business in 1985. Today, the Olivers serve as the breeders and selectors of the Primrose Path line of perennials. Their award-winning breeding program is currently focused primarily on Phlox varieties, but they have also introduced great-performing Must Have Perennials varieties such as Heuchera ‘Steel City’. The Olivers are also published authors, having written “Heuchera, Tiarella and Heucherella: A Gardener’s Guide” in 2006. This is a great resource for novice gardeners and pros alike! The Olivers recently spoke to us about their breeding and selection process and the insights they’ve gleaned over 30 years in the business.
How did they get their start in plant breeding?
They started in 1985 as a mail-order nursery raising native plants from seed. Within a couple of years, they found that some of the plants in their stock beds, especially the heucheras, were crossing, and they were getting interesting hybrids in the seedlings they were growing. This led them to a planned breeding program with heuchera and tiarella using a wide variety of wild species. No one else was doing this at all at the time.
Olivers talking about breeding process
They try to have as much control as possible over the breeding process and to keep accurate records. This way, they can repeat really productive crosses and more material with desirable traits is available for selection. They keep our potted breeding stock in a screened building to prevent wild pollination and move pollen to do the crosses by hand with a brush. Luckily, the plants they have worked with are self-incompatible, so self-pollination has not been a worry. They sow the seed fresh and have seedlings ready to pot up individually the next spring. Usually these will bloom the first year, so selection for desirable traits begins then and continues for several years.
When did they build your tissue culture lab and what sort of impact did it have on their breeding?
At first, they listed and sold new selections, intentional hybrids and a range of desirable selections from their seedlings of several native species. they were working up stock by division and cuttings. By the mid-90s we decided new plants would be our marketing niche and they needed to find a better way to get more of our selections and hybrids into production. They did some wholesale production out of the lab for their own customers. However, they were reluctant to make the leap into large-scale wholesale production by themselves.
“Steel City” was one of a large group of seedlings from a cross between Heuchera ‘Regina’, an early hybrid with silvery foliage and pink flowers
What do they find to be the most satisfying or rewarding aspect of plant breeding?
What is most exciting is to spot a really outstanding plant straight out of the seedling flat. This has happened a couple of times with the heucheras, and these plants have gone on to become best sellers. When outstanding-looking plants turn out to have superior vigor and grow well in tissue culture, that is very satisfying, and the plants become like beloved pets.
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Must Have Perennials