HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.



As a single person I have been thinking a lot about selection.

When considering another person to share time and space and energy with I have criteria I would like that person to meet. These criteria are different depending on the circumstances – are you going to be a friend… or are you going to be um.. more than a friend? I have a list of “need to haves” and “neat to haves” applying to either scenario.

As a horticulturist I think about selection too.

On a recent vacation I just happened to be on the trails at the exact right time to find mountain laurels in full bloom. Though I hike a lot, I often find myself in mountain laurel areas thinking to myself “I have to remember to come back here when these will be in full bloom.” And then not getting back to them until the same time the next year, if at all. So I was thrilled to find myself in multiple places with these beauties in full show.

What really caught my attention as I wandered these trails was the variation in color of the mountain laurel flowers.

Notice, in the photos above, all the color variation of the mountain laurels I found in my recent travels. These are naturally occurring wild species of this plant – Kalmia latifolia. The flowers on different plants ranged from pure white with no sign of pink at all to solid dark pink and every variation in between. A dark pink one could be right next to a pure white one.

A cultivar, or cultivated variety of a plant, is a selection. The characteristics it features were selected by someone who thought they added value to the plant – could be disease resistance, cold hardiness, double flowers, purple foliage, etc. You can tell a cultivar when you are purchasing plants by the name in ‘single quotes’ on the plant name tag. If it has a name in single quotes you have a cultivar on your hands.

A cultivar is different from the straight species of a plant. The straight species is the one that grows in the wild and is only modified by mother nature. Natural variations abound within straight species of plants and this is where a lot of cultivars come from.

This type of genetic variation is where plant selections come from. Plant breeders would take seeds or cuttings of the plants with the interesting and desirable traits and try to create plants that reliably demonstrate these characteristics. Then they give the plant a marketable name and put it out for sale. The dark pink mountain laurels so popular at garden centers are cultivars of these I found in the wild. In fact there are more than 75 cultivars of mountain laurel.

Unlike when we get to choose people, based on our lists of wants and needs and likes and dislikes, for the most part, we are only able to choose plants that have been designed for us. These plants have been chosen for us out of myriad genetic combinations and mutations happening out there in nature based on what marketers think will sell well, what horticulturists find interesting and what problems hybridizers want to solve or niche they want to fill.