We’re just a month away from our annual New Plant Introductions issue, and each year we’re excited to see what’s waiting in the wings. Lots of exciting new developments and lots of twists on standards. It seems like the range of plants grows broader and deeper every year.

Sixty-six years ago, however, one of American Nurseryman’s regular columnists urged growers to consider working with wild flowers to improve upon natural characteristics and, frankly, to provide extra income. From the October 1, 1948, issue, “This Business of Ours, Reflections on the Progress and Problems of Nurserymen” by E. Sam Hemming:

Improving Wild Flowers

Naturally, all of our annual and herbaceous perennial garden plants were once wild subjects. Over the centuries they have been introduced into the garden, usually the result of sporadic efforts at improvement. Improvements have mostly come about by chance selection, although there has been some systematic hybridization. Some plants have been the subjects of a great deal of work, such as the rose, phlox, iris, tulip and pansy, so that the garden varieties bear little or no resemblance to the wild forms. The specialist has taken care of these, but there is no reason why you or I cannot improve one of the plants that are grown in the garden with little change from their characteristics in a wild state. There are still other wild flowers that are not now cultivated which would, nevertheless, lend themselves to garden culture.

These plant improvements take time and should be done with sufficient effort and concentration to make them worth while. It took my father forty years of intermittent effort on the mallow before one was obtained that was deemed worthy of patenting. It probably could have been done in fifteen years.

In making an effort to improve such plants, it is wise to start with plants that have certain characteristics which make improvements not only possible but likely. Also improvements should be commercially feasible and not be just curiosities. Such characteristics would be inherent natural beauty of color and form of flower. The presence of two or more closely related species is needed to make crossing easier, along with a certain natural sturdiness; the weediness of a coreopsis is not necessary, but the temperament of a fringed gentian would be useless. A plant that tends to vary as to color in the wild state would be more likely to produce breaks.

In systematically producing these improvements it would be necessary to collect both seeds and plants with as many variations as possible and set them out in the nursery, constantly roguing out the undesirable types and keeping a lookout for improvements in size, color and form.

Most of the plants like the tulip and lily, which have received the most attention from the hybridizers, have flower parts that make controlled hand-pollination easy; namely, large stamens of small number and a large pistil. Many of those that have received the least attention have flower parts that are minute and complex, making the removal of stamens difficult. A good many of these belong to the composite family, of which the chrysanthemum is a member and a notable exception.

From this one might gather that the latter would not lend themselves so readily to improvement as would the former. This is not the case. Of course, you would not be able to trace the genetic ancestry of indiscriminate cross-pollination of composite flowers, but since it is a new plant we are after, that would not matter. Also, there would be some lost motion caused by the abundance of seedlings produced from which to select.

In hybridization it is good to have a goal, such as larger flowers, different and better colors, increased hardiness or better form of the plant. But the greatest number of our improved varieties of plants come from mutations or sports that occur more or less spontaneously and are the breaks for which we are looking. And there is no reason why the breaks cannot be yours.

One might ask, what wildflowers are there that could be worked on? I can think of a number. As an example I shall mention the common orange milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, which grows wild along the banks and roadsides in Maryland. I have seen this plant in the wild in a color range from pale lemon to deep orange, better colors than you would probably secure if you ordered the plant from a perennial nursery. To round out its possibilities, there are are other forms of milkweeds with which it can be crossed. It can be sold, too, for we produced a small amount of seeds once with the idea of working with them and sold all the plants before we had a chance at hybridization. This plant has good foliage, a showy flower and variations within the species and other closely related species, and it is rugged without being weedy. The possibilities are endless, and one good subject can make you a lot of money.