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Aspects Concerning Delphinium Seed Germination

(Dowdeswell's First Law of Dissatisfaction)
by Terry Dowdeswell
by Terry Dowdeswell


Terry Dowdeswell is the owner of Dowdeswell's Delphiniums in Wanganui New Zealand.

Be sure to visit his site at

February 10, 2013

During the northern hemisphere summer we have once again received images of our plants growing in gardens in Canada and the USA. These images, and the delighted, delightful comments that accompany them make our winters (such as they are) brighter and more cheerful. They also underline our reason for being in the delphinium breeding business. Ok, first we have to make money, well (some at least) but when you think about it, we could do that with anything. There are so many people in the world making money it's obvious that financial success doesn't hinge on vocation, or choice of product, but rather on a desire to make money. So, we're in the delphinium breeding business because we like working with the plants, creating new varieties and most of all, receiving feedback from delighted customers ... and to pay the food bills.

Now, you can bet that anyone in business receiving rave reviews from customers also receive complaints from time to time - and we're no exception. In fact, complainants are probably the most valuable customers we have because they highlight areas where we can improve.

The most common complaint about delphiniums (of any kind) concerns germination. For some reason people who buy seeds expect them to germinate. Very inconsiderate of them I know - but it takes all sorts I guess and plants do fill the garden better than un-germinated seed.

Gardeners have their own perception, based on practice and what others tell them, of how well different types of seeds will germinate. For instance, if brassica seed are sown we expect to see almost the same number of plants emerge as seed that were sown. This is not only because most brassica seed sold germinate well and produce strong seedlings, but also because brassicas have a relatively long shelf life (3 to 5 years) at room temperature, which is where the seed are generally stored in garden centres and other shops. The commonly available delphinium 'Pacific Giants' on the other hand can be expected to have an initial germination rate, when harvested, in the region of 80%, possibly higher. Freshly packed and correctly stored seed may still give 65% germination after one year, however this quickly reduces at room temperature because delphinium seed is only short lived in these conditions and should therefore always be stored in the refrigerator. Gardeners may buy seed that has been stored in poor conditions (warm shops) and may therefore expect the poorer keepers (such as delphinium) to have very low, or even nil, germination potential. So, not only do we need to increase the germination percentage that we are able to achieve, but we also need to make sure that our customers maximise their chances by receiving fresh, correctly stored seed and employ the best germinating techniques. The three broad issues are:

That the seed is viable and vigorous when supplied.

That it is treated correctly in transport and storage.

That the gardener knows how best to deal with it.

Increasing the germination percentage, and thus the number of plants raised per number of seed sown, is a major goal for us and our aim is to have all our seven main seed lines regularly delivering 80 plants per 100 seed sown (currently most are close to this or better). This is not yet achieved, nor is it easy because the more you develop a flower the more you tend to lose germination potential. We keep extensive records of the germination results from our delphinium crosses and much of our breeding work concerns increasing those percentages. We are also working with Massey University, here in Palmerston North, New Zealand concerning factors affecting storage and transport of our delphinium seed and our web site contains instructions about how best to germinate the seed and grow our delphinium plants. However, as much as we may improve the germination of our main lines of delphinium seed there will probably always be a few, with particularly unusual form or desirable colour, that are difficult to germinate. This is because there is always a trade off of characteristics. It may or may not have anything at all to do with genetics but it will almost certainly be a result of Dowdeswell's 'First Law of Dissatisfaction' which, simply stated, says that 'The more desirable something is, the more difficult it will be to obtain'.

If you are having trouble germinating delphinium seed (any of the commonly available varieties) please drop me a line and I will do my best to help. If you are having trouble germinating our delphinium seed then I really want to hear from you.


Terry Dowdeswell


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