National Geographic : 1968 May
National Geographic, May, 1968 America, in 1946, by Charles Weddle, then with W. Atlee Burpee Company, and now head of the Weddle Plant Research Laboratories at Palisade, Colorado. Since then, such hybridi zation has improved many other flowers. To control the purity of the "blood lines," seedsmen raise plants in greenhouses, and each flower to be pollenated is emasculated by the removal of its stamens (male organs). It is then pollenated by hand with pollen from the other parental variety (pages 724-5). I tried out this tedious process in a Pan American greenhouse. Under the direction of one of the women pollenators, I carefully nipped off the stamens of a pink petunia and then dabbed pollen from the stamens of an other plant-the male parent-on the flower's pistil (the female organ). I hung a little tag on the stem to record the cross. I worked for per haps five minutes, and my only reward was very sticky fingers and a grin from my in structor for my clumsiness. "For each ounce of petunia seed, we emas culate 2,000 flowers, pollenate 2,000 flowers, and pick 2,000 seed capsules," Charlie Wed dle told me. "Six thousand hand operations for an ounce of seed-that's why hybrid pe tunia seed is so expensive." I began to see why petunia seed wholesales for as much as $500 an ounce. But even at that price the buyer gets a bargain, because an ounce contains about 300,000 seeds. Tiny Seeds Command High Prices Later, in Capitola, California, at the bego nia gardens of Vetterle & Reinelt, which pro duce 80 percent of all United States commer cial begonia seed, I was even more astounded: Seed of the giant begonias hybridized by Frank Reinelt brings $3,500 an ounce. "Begonia seeds run more than a million to the ounce," Mrs. Reinelt told me. "Nobody dares sneeze around them-they're too precious." Every grower is pursuing hybrids-work ing in marigolds, zinnias, snapdragons, bego nias, geraniums, and pansies. "Before too many years, hybrids of virtual ly every flower will be available," says John Waller of the Waller Flowerseed Company at Guadalupe, California. One of the most successful hybridizers is Glenn Goldsmith, whose company has its greenhouses and trial grounds near Gilroy, California. I found the lanky Glenn in a greenhouse where flats of tagged petunia plants looked as though a bargain sale were in progress. He stepped over to a white cabinet. "This is new with us," he said. "It's a growth chamber with high-intensity light and con trolled temperature that speeds up reproduc tion impressively. With this we can take petunias from seeds to flowers in 37 days. Ordinarily it would take up to three months." Once a seedsman has a good flower, his next task is to think up a name. "A good name is just as important as a good flower-or so it seems," said Bill Scott, sales manager of the Ferry-Morse flower division. The Ferry Morse people are proud of their dwarf sweet pea and equally proud of its name, Knee-Hi (page 736). But they were taken aback when a letter arrived from England. "Your Knee Hi grows belly-high over here," the letter read. "May I respectfully suggest a new name - Bali Hai?" Vacuum Harvests Geranium Seeds When fall shortened the days, I revisited the Ferry-Morse fields to watch the harvest. Windrow machines trundled along, cutting the flowered plants and laying them in rows. Men forked them onto canvas squares for curing and later threshing. In other fields, women stooped to pick pansy seeds by hand. Geranium seeds, once very difficult to pick, were sucked from the plants by vacuum (pages 722-3). "When we bag the seeds, they are mixed with chaff and dirt-about fifty-fifty seeds and waste," said Elmer Twedt. He took me through the plant where a battery of vibrators, screens, and "hill climbers" clean the seeds. The latter are canvas belts to which sticks and other debris cling while the seeds roll off. Ferry-Morse sends its seeds to Fulton, Ken tucky, for packeting by high-speed machines, which can each fill 30,000 packets a day. Figures for individual companies are trade secrets, but an educated guess is that in the whole United States flower seed industry 500,000,000 seed packets are filled every year. The industry supplies about two-thirds of the flower seeds planted in this country (the rest come chiefly from Europe and Japan) and more than a third of the seeds used elsewhere in the world. Germination laboratories spot-test every crop for seed viability, a matter of much con cern to seedsmen (opposite). Ferry-Morse, for example, was quite upset when a woman called to complain that not a single petunia had grown from a packet she had planted.