HOMEGROWN: THE NEXT GENERATION OF MARKET WINNERS?

January 28, 2008
Written by Alicia Roberts
Some 40 different plants have already been studied in a new plant-breeding program at the University of Guelph.

14More Canadian-grown flowers may soon be sprouting in local greenhouses, thanks to a new breeding program for native species being developed at the University of Guelph.

Prof. Al Sullivan, Department of Plant Agriculture, is developing a breeding program specifically for flowers indigenous to Canada. He says once established, it will help the country’s horticulture sector gain a unique competitive advantage by raising native plants.

“Most of the flower cultivars being grown in Canada are produced somewhere else in the world,” says Sullivan. “If we had our own breeding program, we could breed and license our own plants in Canada and obtain the benefits of having developed the products locally.”

Sullivan says because other countries produce the plants, they are able to grow the latest cultivars and ship the remainder to outside buyers including Canada. This system means Canadians don’t get first crack at the newest plants, and a complicated – and often expensive – system for tracking royalties ensues as they get involved in sub-licensing and co-ownership strategies with other buying countries.

A home-grown breeding program would be an important step towards gaining a more economical hold on local and export sales, says Sullivan.

While some Canadian nurseries already market native species, Sullivan says these plants are typically harvested right from nature and sold without further genetic improvements. He is working to change this approach by gathering more information on the native plants and breeding to ensure their continuous supply with enhanced characteristics such as improved flower size and colour, shelf life, and drought resistance.

First, because information on native plants is so scarce, Sullivan and his team have been assessing different native species to learn more about their potential commercial value. In the past three years, they have studied 40 different plants for qualities such as management and growing characteristics, propagation potential, physical characteristics, and disease and pest resistance.

Sullivan is focusing on plants that require low inputs for water, light and nutrient intake. These allow growers to reduce their energy inputs, and are ideal when selling to consumers in city settings with little water availability and shaded backyards. Sullivan foresees developing management profiles for each species, so growers can manage the plants with better success.

He is also using this information to breed better native plants, using two different approaches. In the first, he inter-crosses superior plants he finds in nature and selects the best plants from each generation. As the plants are improved, they can be released for the marketplace, at any generation. He’s also hoping to try an approach used in corn to produce hybrids and take advantage of the breeding technique to enhance species vigour and control uniformity. In both approaches, Sullivan has the commercial greenhouse market as the end goal.

Down the road, Sullivan is focused on improving propagation techniques for these species, and even looking to micro-propagation, which can shorten generation time and help produce millions of plants faster.

“With this program, growers can refine the species to develop optimized growing schemes that best suit their specific market and needs,” says Sullivan. “Then we can offer Canadians a more competitive product, grown specifically for Canadian consumers.”

Others involved in this research include Profs. Theo Blom, Bernard Grodzinski, and Praveen Saxena, and masters student Mary Jane Clark, all of Department of Plant Agriculture.

This research is sponsored by Flowers Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Canadian Ornamental Plant Foundation.

Alicia Roberts is a writer with the SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) program at the University of Guelph.

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