Thomas G. Ranney is a professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University, but his “classroom” is a bit different from most. Since 1989, he’s been in charge of the Mountain Crop Improvement Lab at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, where he’s worked since earning his PhD in Horticulture/Plant Protection from Cornell University.

At the center’s Lab, Ranney does work closely with students (both graduate and undergraduate), but his position actually is 100 percent research, focusing on plant breeding and new crop development. So the teaching – and the learning – are hands-on. And the education extends far beyond the student body.

Tucked into the mountains of Western North Carolina, the Lab has an inspirational setting for the serious work of applied research that not only trains new plant breeders, but also contributes directly to the commercial hort industry. Ranging from sustainable production practices to glorious new plants, the results of the work here are shared with other researchers, and with growers and breeders across the country and around the world. Familiar with Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea? It was developed here.

The Mountain Crop Improvement Lab

We asked Ranney to describe his work, the lab and the overall contributions of the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center:

“It’s basically a university research program, and we have broad challenges. We’re engaged in research, education, and new crop development. Most of what we do revolves around plant breeding, but that’s a fairly large tent. We sometimes get involved in more basic research and do work on fundamental genetics and reproductive biology, but it all typically has an ultimate goal of developing new and improved plants.”

Much of the work is intended to send plants into the market, but, as Ranney explains, “I would say there’s a whole continuum. A lot of the work is developing fundamental information that will enable other plant breeders. We do basic work on breeding and genetics, mode of inheritance, reproductive biology, and things that would allow other breeders to advance their programs. But we do like to take projects to fruition if we can, and ultimately use that new information in developing new and superior plants that are better commodities for the industry.”

Collaboration is key

“We work a lot with industry, growers and associations, and very much work in terms of partnerships,” Ranney says. “A lot of our plant breeding projects are grassroots collaborations, from inception to commercialization. So we’re constantly getting input, sharing ideas, and walking nursery rows over periods of years and generations of plants.

“It is a long-term undertaking, and it’s one that I think is well-suited to collaboration,” he continues. “Although we can often bring some technical expertise to the table, we lean heavily on industry for giving the business world perspective, looking at production considerations, plant evaluations, market analysis, and regional testing. And then ultimately we like to hand things off to a commercial partner to do the marketing and the commercialization.

“Working with industry helps to keep me both inspired and grounded. If you ever want to be really humbled as a plant breeder, invite a bunch of nurserymen out to walk your rows of plants. They tend to be straight shooters and knowledgeable critics.”

Collaborators range from associations to private companies.

“We work a lot with the North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association; they have a plant breeding advisory committee of quite a few people,” Ranney says. “They come out a couple of times a year and actually look at plants, discuss concepts and see how things look in the field at different locations. We’ll work with them to send plants to different trial sites with people who work with these things every day and see how they propagate, how they look in a container, how they perform in different field conditions. It’s a long-term collaboration, and they provide feedback that helps reassess our goals and direction.

“But we also work with private companies, too, folks like Spring Meadow Nursery, Star Roses and J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.,” Ranney continues. “And they might come to us with a specific project that they’re interested in, that they think has commercial merit, and then we work together with them on it.” One such project with Spring Meadow resulted in the series of Invincibelle Spirit hydrangeas.

Carolina Sweetheart™ redbud (Cercis ‘NCCC1’) is one of the newer introductions from the Mountain Crop Improvement Lab. Its pink foliage gives the impression of blooms.

Making connections

These cooperative ventures make the most of the talents and skills both at academia and industry. But at the Lab, science is No. 1.

“We work a lot of different angles, but I feel like our niche is bridging the gap between academia and application,” Ranney explains. “There’s lots of information, techniques, and tools coming from the academic side that have application, and I think we’re in a good position to help facilitate that translational research and development.

“We are working on a bit more fundamental level than industry has the luxury to work on, so we might do basic research on understanding things like cytogenetics of hydrangeas,” he continues. “This is really valuable information for a breeder to know – things like base chromosome numbers and ploidy levels and how certain traits are inherited. That information is valuable and foundational to people who are doing more applied breeding. But we also like to develop a final end product as well, so I hope that some of our introductions are good nursery plants that have had utility in the market and ultimately for homeowners.”

My Fair Maiden™ miscanthus (Miscanthus ‘NCMS1’) is a breakthrough, seedless variety.

How does the partnership work?

“Oftentimes we might have a partnership early on in the process – like we might be working with the North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association – and they have a goal of breeding improved dogwoods,” Ranney offers. “So then, as we start going through the process of setting goals and breeding new hybrids it becomes an exercise in winnowing down populations and identifying superior plants that might have commercial potential for different niches followed by lots of testing and evaluation. Once a decision is made and we give a green light to an introduction, we usually turn it over to a commercial partner. They take it from there, and deal with intellectual property issues, licensing growers, marketing, how you get it growing around the world in different markets, and things like that.”

Generations at work

All of this takes time, of course, and Ranney explains the process in terms of generations – generations of plants and generations of students and plant breeders. From the concept for a new, marketable plant to actual introduction, it may take the work of consecutive classes.

“It varies quite a bit on the plants; certainly if you’re working with herbaceous plants, their generation times are shorter,” Ranney says. “The biggest gains really are to be had once you can get in a few generations and start combining complex traits of interest.

“I think some of our hydrangeas are about six or seven generations in, and each generation takes a couple of years. Then once you get to products that you think might have commercial potential, you get into a final evaluation phase, so it can be a long process. Trees are even longer. We’re working with some goldenrain trees; we’re just in the second generation and we’ve been working on that for 15 years, so I would say that at the short end of the spectrum, even with a perennial that has a generation time of a year, you’d be lucky to do a project from start to finish is less than five years. And on the long end, it’s generational in terms of plant breeders, you know, a number of lifetimes. But that’s why we have graduate students. It’s sort of like a very long chess game.”

A new weeping cherry (Prunus ‘NCPH1’, Pink Cascade) produces flowers in rich, deep pink tones.

That long-term approach benefits the industry as well as the plants, because in a short-attention-span market, the temptation to rush plants to market sometimes is compelling. Testing, evaluation, more testing, trials … the better the science, the better the plant. And the better the chance that plant has to become a standard.

As exceptional as the plants are, the people who work on them are what Ranney appreciates the most.

“I’m really fortunate to work with some brilliant, capable people who are instrumental in everything we do, and they make it fun to come to work each day,” he says. “The other thing that we’re really proud of is our students. I think that plant breeders tend to think in terms of generations, not only when we’re talking about plants, but also fostering the next generation of plant breeders. We’ve had a lot of great students that come through our lab – including graduate and undergraduate students – who have gone on to develop successful careers in industry, academia, extension, public gardens, and government. It’s fun to see them be so successful and it’s reassuring to know that the future of plant breeding and horticulture is in good hands.

“The plants are fun, but the students and staff are what we’re most proud of.”