Have you ever thought of getting into plant hybridization
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 6, 2017

Above, a young ‘Blue Princess’ holly with fruit in late summer. Below, a larger ‘Blue Princess” plant in full berry at our Parksville home. Author photos.




If you are one who has recently become enthralled with gardening as a hobby, and are now thinking of how you can expand your activity, this Winter could be the time for you to do some research and planning.

If I were to suggest that should you be looking for a way to get more involved in gardening, you should consider hybridizing of plants, you'd likely say that it would be far too deep and difficult for an amateur like you.

Not so!

Consider the case in the 1970s of Catharine Meserve, living in Pennsylvania. Catharine's husband passed away. Both she and her husband had been ardent gardeners, but neither had ever gotten involved in anything more complex than starting certain "difficult" plants from seed, or propagating shrubs from cuttings. Now she was all on her own. She thought she'd like to get more involved in gardening, but couldn't do anything heavy or (so she thought) technical. A friend suggested she get into hybridizing plants. She eschewed the idea saying it would be far too technical for her, and that she had no training whatsoever.

The friend did not give up, until eventually Catharine asked that if plant hybridizing was such a good idea, how would one start--with what plants? The friend suggested choosing a genus of plants that had not been worked on extensively. When pushed farther, he suggested hollies. "Basically the English holly is not hardy much north of Philadelphia, so there could be a good market for plants which produce abundant red berries in colder climates."

Catharine decided to go for it!

That was 50 years ago or more, and now today, you can check virtually any nursery or garden centre, or look in any nursery catalogue and find the Blue Princess and China Girl hollies. If you look at the tags, or listing, you'll see the botanical names of these are Ilex meserveae 'Blue Princess' and Ilex meserveae 'China Girl'. Yes, they're her introductions, bearing her name, and they are grown extensively in this area. [By the way, if you are planting these hollies, remember you must have at least one male plant ('Blue Prince' or 'China Boy' with each four/five female plants, if the females are to bear fruit.]

Now you may think, as Catharine did, that hybridizing plants is a difficult procedure that calls for an extensive knowledge of plants and the ability to carry out hard-to-understand techniques. But, it's all relatively simple. The actual "how-to" of plant breeding can be learned in little more than a few minutes.

The "art" of selecting the right kind of parents and evaluating the hybrids produced are the difficult tasks which will be developed as the work proceeds and the results are carefully studied.

When planning your hybridizing work, you will need to remember that the plants must be closely related botanically. It will be useless to try to cross a lily with a rose, or a geranium with a dahlia (although some unusual crosses do take place occasionally--witness the broccilflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower). It's this planning for what is to be hybridized that I suggest could be your Winter gardening project, in order to be ready for next Spring.

The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the main parts of a flower. A "perfect" flower has four parts: the anthers (atop stamens) which produce the pollen; and the stigma, style and ovary. The stigma's shape varies with each type of flower, but is usually at about the same height as the anthers, and often is sticky. The style is the stalk that connects the stigma with the ovary at its base. The ovary is the base that contains the undeveloped seeds (ovules).

Many common flowers, such as dahlias, chrysanthemums and zinnias are really clusters of perfect or imperfect flowers and the parts I've described are so small they are difficult to work on (the anthers must be removed before they produce pollen if hybridization work is to be done). With many fully double flowers such as double petunias, the flowers have been created by changing stamens into petals, so little pollen is produced.

There is much information to be found in books at the libraries--now is the time to search it out or on the World Wide Web. And, if you still think it will be hard for you to start in on the plant breeding hobby, bear in mind that a large percentage of ornamental plant varieties introduced in recent years have come from the efforts of so-called 'amateurs.' Some of the best roses, gladioli, irises, daylilies, hollies, and African violets are being introduced by hobbyists with less than ten years' experience.


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