In a typical gardening store you’ll find hundreds of varieties of flowers, all cultivated for specific traits related to qualities like appearance or resistance to pests. The diversity of flowers available today is partly a result of modern genetic engineering, but also partly the result of a very different kind of breakthrough — one made 200 years ago by a small, dedicated group of horticulturists who dared to challenge religious orthodoxy regarding the creation of new kinds of life.
Cross-breeding flowers by deliberately taking pollen from one and dusting it on the other might seem like basic horticulture, but initially it was seen as a morally radical act. “People were heavily influenced by religion and this feeling that only God could create a new flower,” says Judith M. Taylor, author of the new book, “Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders from the Past.”
Taylor’s book is the story of the birth of modern botany in the 19th century. At the time many naturally occurring flowers were being imported from China to Europe. Among them was a variety of rose that bloomed in the summer and, unlike European roses, bloomed again in the fall. Taylor says the desirable qualities of this rose from China caused the “what-if brigade [to spring] into action. What if we crossed this flower with [another] we like a lot?”
Cross-breeding had been understood at least as far back as 1720, when an English nurseryman deliberately created a hybrid carnation. That was during “the time when the religious embargo was very strong,” Taylor says, and she explains that the nurseryman spent the rest of his life feeling guilty about having trespassed on God’s exclusive territory.
For a long time, farmers had practiced “selection,” taking seed from the best producing plants to use for next season’s crops. But cross-breeding was seen as more meddlesome and taboo. By the mid 19th century, however, horticulturists were growing more daring. At first they released cross-breeds under fake Latin names, to give the illusion of having discovered the plant in nature as opposed to having manufactured it in their gardens. By 1845, Taylor, a retired neurologist with a second career writing horticultural histories, says it was no long necessary to use such ruses, and the race to create new varieties of flowers was on. One of the main figures in her story is a 19th-century French horticulturist named Victor Lemoine who introduced hundreds of new varieties of geraniums, marigolds, irises, peonies, and, most influentially, the “French lilac,” which is still popular today.
Taylor says there is a “straight line from the work [Lemoine] was doing to the modern gardening center.” Then, as now, some gardeners felt the torrent of new varieties was overkill; there were also concerns that important, naturally occurring qualities were getting lost in the rush to create bigger, bolder, heartier flowers. In the mid-20th century, horticulturists realized that in their haste to cultivate ever more gorgeous roses, they’d bred all the fragrance out of the flowers. Thus the “rose rustlers” were born — a “wild, intrepid” bunch, Taylor says, who’d hunt in cemeteries for old rose bushes that still had that rose-like smell.
Today, cross-breeding takes place at a more rapid pace than ever, due to the fact that horticulturists can now tinker at the molecular level. Taylor says that quite often a new variety of flower won’t last more than a year or two before it’s superseded by something else, which raises the possibility that eventually good cross-breeding might simply be about trying to get back to where we started.Kevin Hartnett, Brainac columnist for the Ideas section, is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.