Clones, seed strains, laboratory sex: how does uniformity in the horticultural market affect you, and why does it matter? Chauncey the Gardener, in Hal Ashby's classic film "Being There," would have a reassuring answer. For a more reflective response, read below.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle 1/29/05, with minor changes to the text

GARDEN STAKES

"All is well in the garden," Peter Sellers kept assuring bigwigs and public alike in Hal Ashby's classic film, "Being There." Presidential advisor and pop soothsayer, Chauncey the Gardener was also a moron.
The film was released in 1979, and by now there's a need to update. Because these days, the State of the Garden can no longer be taken as a simple story device or metaphor in a political fable, as our backyards are now literal grounds for global issues.
And no, all is not well in the garden. Its nature has been programmed, and traditional plants replaced by duplicates and clones. We're fast approaching the day when everything there is uniform.
Although uniformity is nothing new in a world of mass production and franchises, consequences are another matter. It's a whole other ball game when conformity starts to crash the garden gate.
And what a gate. With 84 million gardeners tilling the soil in the United States, annual sales of the lawn and gardening industry reached $38 billion at last count.
Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, this green has proven too big a honey pot to leave to the vagaries of nature. Open- pollinated plants, like man himself, are genetically unique. But breeders say that pollination left to the birds and the bees gives results that are too pokey, too unpredictable. Instead, they want control. And so they promote assembly-line production and distribution of identical proprietary plants: clones of perennials, trees and shrubs (a.k.a. cultivars) propagated vegetatively by divisions, cuttings or tissue culture; patented seed strains (a.k.a. seed cultivars), the uniform offspring of in-bred annuals altered genetically to achieve desired traits; and of course F1 hybrids, the most proprietary of all, the uniform offspring of crossed, uniform parents.
The industry defends its work. `Improved' is the word on everyone's lips. Native plants that can take summer watering. Annuals that produce non-stop. Yet can you really improve on a native that has evolved over eons to survive drought? Is it progress when hybrids and seed strains require a surplus of water, fertilizers and pesticides to perform at their top? Many of us are aware of dwindling water tables and the increasing chemical sterility of our soil. But consequences like these are just the obvious price of such tinkering. The hidden danger is the possibility that, in the embrace of the new and improved and uniform, gardeners are abandoning forever species plants, like wild petunias, and old-fashioned varieties once found in commerce.
And with that, we're moving from the personal to the global, where there's a whole lot more at stake.

GLOBAL WARMING, ANYONE?

Everyone's heard of endangered plants in drippy jungles and windy steppes, but a surprising number of domesticated plants are also threatened. Take our food plants. Whereas at one time 50,000 species of plants were consumed by humanity, now it's estimated that ninety-five percent of our nutrition is supplied by only thirty plants, and fifty percent by only three: corn, rice and wheat. And within this impoverished range, there's a disturbing reliance by agribusiness on only a few, genetically uniform `elite' varieties. The use of these on a global scale restricts the use of traditional varieties, which are increasingly abandoned and lost. As if this weren't bad enough, these `super' plants have been so narrowly bred that they've lost their broad genetic base that allowed them to adapt to changes in climate, and pests and pathogens.
Global warming, anyone?
As for those pests, The National Academy of Sciences 1972 report on crop epidemics found that the more genetically uniform a planting is (read monoculture), the greater the insect damage. And the greater the attempt to stop the pests, whether by chemicals or by elite breeding (`New! Improved!'), the faster the pests will mutate in order to ensure their own survival.
Heard of the soybean rust, for example, that's making the rounds in the United States? It's not the cause of current agricultural woes, it's just the symptom.
And it's not just food crops that are on the pests' plate. In recent years the monoculture of lavender clones in Provence, France, has been badly attacked by a pathogen; in Columbia, it's been the broca, or coffee borer, that's decimating plantations; in California, Monterey pines -- the most widely planted pine species in the world and a favorite monoculture of the Christmas tree trade -- has been under siege by the pitch canker fungus; and since its discovery in 2000, daylilies in over half of the United States have been infected with daylily rust. These are just samples of contemporary, aggravated epidemics.

THE TREND MILL

You may think the above doesn't concern the average gardener who's not into monoculture, after all, but just growing ornamentals and a few odds and ends in the vegetable plot. But these days, with so little undeveloped natural land left, everyday backyard gardens around the world may end up becoming more than personal refuges or spots to grow a bit of fresh food for the family. Increasingly, they could become repositories of genes that could actually stave off famine or revigorate species plants. Witness the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens search for open- pollinated plants of chocolate cosmos, Cosmos atrosanguineus. The species is believed to be extinct in its native Mexico, and Kew wanted to replant its original habitat. The greatest genetic diversity was needed, but since nurseries were using clonal stock, a wide-ranging call for help went out. Historically, cottage gardens have been an important resource for "lost" plants. But if gardeners continue the trend of planting hybrids, strains and clones, will there be any cottage gardens with unique plants left?
Already way too many flower and vegetable varieties in Europe have been lost, thanks to the European Union's requirement that all seed sold by commerce be stable and uniform. In theory, anyone selling varieties not listed in the legal catalog can be prosecuted in order to enforce plant patenting laws.
It's enough to make some gardeners call for arms, or at least take up the cause. But for those who may not care about saving the planet, gardening with one-of-a-kind plants offers other saving graces besides cultivating good karma. Such as a chance to jump off the trend mill and, as a corollary, to fatten the wallet. With few exceptions, the horticultural trade carries such a narrow range of the most popular and most profitable items that consumers soon become jaded by these me-too plants and line up for a whole new round of purchases -- not only of the latest plants, but also of fertilizers and pesticides and water from the water company in order to get them settled and productive.
Plants raised from traditional seed, on the other hand, are ridiculously varied and ridiculously cheap, plus many horticulturists maintain they are stronger and healthier than the attenuated clones of species, and clones of improved plants. They certainly demand less in the way of artificial imputs and natural resources than hybrids, and if happy in their habitat, can even provide seed year after year, for free.
For those trying to re-create a little garden of Eden, it's liberating to leave money and materalism outside the garden gate.
But we need to act fast, or we're likely to be seeing more of those plant commercials that are sneaking in behind our backs. Like `KLM,' the strain of nemesia that appeared on the market awhile back, named after the Dutch airline and carrying the company colors. Personally, I couldn't see the thing without thinking of KLM's lawsuit against Northwest Airlines. Are these the sort of associations we want in the garden?
Aesthetics are another incentive for reverting to traditional plants. For those who recoil before humungous snapdragons or white marigolds, a shift to the generally more modest and graceful species should be an easy call. But breeders know the color of money. They've noticed the interest in old- fashioned `romantic' varieties and are now offering their own versions of romance. Yet like their flashier commercial counterparts, these new plants are genetically uniform. They've lost their nature at the breeder's lab.
Labs with increasingly sinister procedures, like the use of deadly viruses and bacteria as propagating agents.
If this is progress, I'll take tradition and the birds and the bees. Because this is finally one of the greatest satisfactions derived from growing species and old-fashioned plants. Untamed plants provide the nectar for hummingbirds, bees and other insects that keep a garden alive and humming, not to mention the seed for foraging birds. Hybrids are often sterile, or partially sterile, their sexual parts atrophied or inaccessibly buried under ever-frillier flower petals. While hybrids can occur naturally on occasion, gardeners may be surprised to the degree that native plants -- the selection of choice for nature buffs -- have been deliberately cloned and hybridized.
Unfortunately, that's the reality: it's not always easy to find "unimproved" plants. Not everyone has the will to join specialist plant societies, or the time to order from heirloom and wildflower catalogs and grow plants from seed. You'd think more nurseries out there would consider a marketing niche devoted to `free-range' seedlings. Although it would be naive to think traditional gardening would ever catch on big, anything would be a start. Consumers would begin to question their suppliers, as well as their relationship to the garden itself. Like their grandparents, and their grandparents before them, they'd find that a garden is wonderfully individual and out of their control. The best a gardener can do is to select and save seed for the next year's crop. It's an important ritual, nonetheless, one that celebrates difference.
Sensibility like this can't come too soon. Contemporary gardens aren't well. If we don't get our noses out of the dirt and look up at the big picture, who knows what might happen?
Chauncey the Gardener, of course, would have a reassuring, pithy answer. Thing is, this time it won't wash. There's a new subtext to the fable.

 

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(c) Copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.

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