Eureka! I created a brand new plant, but then I didn’t

I’m a plant breeder.

OK, I’m a plant breeder in only the loosest sense of the word. I suppose technically I’m a plant breeding facilitator. No matter what you call it, I was quite excited to see what popped up in my garden last week.

Over the years I’ve developed a love of Nicotiana, an annual that I just can’t imagine being without. My longstanding favorite for several years has been Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ which has a great chartreuse color that ties the garden together but sadly lacks the heady scent of other Nicotianas. Last year I also grew Nicotiana langsdorfii, which has even brighter chartreuse nodding tubular flowers.

Last year I discovered just how easy it is to save the miniscule seeds from Nicotiana. Held in small pods that just need to be dumped into an envelope, I saved seeds from both forms. This winter I started both newly purchased seed and my saved seed under grow lights.

When I started looking at the Nicotiana now starting to put on a show in my garden I recognized both N. alata ‘Lime Green’ and N. langsdorfii, but there was an interesting new form growing from some of the seeds I had saved.

Its flowers are larger than N. langdorfii but smaller than N. alata. They hang down and are a bright chartreuse like the former, but they are shaped like the latter. In other words, it’s a combination of some of the best attributes of each of its parents.            

Eureka! I created a new plant. Sadly, however, my elation was short lived.

Just minutes after excitedly posting about my discovery on Instagram — as one does — a plant friend sent me a bubble-bursting message. He had created the same Nicotiana.

I was already working on unofficial names for my newly discovered variety when Matt Mattus, who literally wrote the book on flowers — “Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening” — told me that N. langsdorfii is “notoriously variable.” In other words, there’s little chance that seeds I save from that plant will look the same next year.

If I was up for growing it from root cuttings, thus cloning the plant (I’m not), I’d be assured the same plant in the future. He offered another option. I could save the seed and then plant it en masse — in all seriousness he suggested an acre, but offered that a 50-foot row might do — flagging the five or so best plants every year and then repeating the process year after year. If I could find one that was sterile and stable I could patent it.

All of a sudden this plant breeding gig doesn’t seem so exciting. I’ll still save seed from my Nicotiana child and grow it next year to see what happens.  And on the little envelope of seed I collect, I’ll write what I might have called it: Nicotiana alata x langsdorfii ‘Impatient.’


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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