Why Hybridize?

When I first became interested in irises in the 1970s, this was a question with a simple answer: You hybridize irises to create new and better varieties. Not everyone was interested in this, of course. It requires time and effort, and many iris enthusiasts have other priorities, like competing in shows or simply enjoying their garden. Still, we were all conscious of the fact that our lovely garden irises were produced by the work of hybridizers, and we seldom questioned the value of such work.

Today there is a greater degree of ecological sophistication. More people have become interested in the naturally occurring iris species for their own sake, rather than as raw material for a hybridizing program. This is a development I applaud. There is a much greater appreciation now for the need to conserve whole populations of species in the wild. Along with this, it seems, comes a more sophisticated appreciation of the species as garden plants. Many iris enthusiasts today are able to see past the endless parade of new, expensive, and imposing TBs to enjoy a simple clump of Iris lactea or an exotic reticulata species collected in the wild.

We're also less inclined to see plant or animal breeding of any sort as an unqualified benefit. In addition to long-standing concerns about deleterious recessive traits emerging in inbred lines, we now also worry about the loss of genetic and ecological diversity. Corporate agriculture, with genetic engineering and patented seeds, has also left its taint on the naive optimism of "improving on nature".

I confess my main reason for hybridizing is an utterly personal one. It satisfies my creative itch. All my life, I've responding to things I enjoy by creating my own. I loved reading science fiction, so I started writing it. I loved studying languages, so I invented my own languages. I loved the detailed fantasy world of The Lord of the Rings, so I created my own fantasy worlds. I loved tarot cards, so I designed my own decks. I loved cooking, so I created my own recipes. This is how I get a full and satisfying experience of things that interest me. For me, creating is immensely richer than simply collecting or observing.

But in the bigger picture of things, what good does hybridizing do for irises and the people who enjoy them? I disagree with those who see hybridizing as competing with conservation. In some very limited sense, of course, this is true. If you are growing a rare species, you need to decide whether to cross with the same species, helping to preserve the population with a new crop of seedlings, or whether to cross it with a different type of iris to contribute to a breeding program. More often, though, I think this is a false dichotomy. The hybridizer will usually want to preserve the species as well as breed with them. Hybridizers simply add to the total number of people who have an interest in conserving the species.

Furthermore, my own breeding interests involve expanding the gene pool of the fertile families. This means bringing more of the genetic diversity found in nature into our gardens. Why does this matter? Although we might imagine living in a more enlightened world where protecting wild plants is a priority, the reality is that the genetic diversity in the natural world is often at risk, and the development of desirable garden plants from the wild forms is one important way to ensure that this diversity is preserved. I think there will always be more dedicated gardeners than dedicated conservationists, and it is through the hybrids that gardeners can help preserve the legacy of the wild plants, if not their specific wild forms. Of course, many hybridizers work exclusively with existing garden varieties, so their activities do not contribute in this area directly.

Another motivation for me is sheer curiosity. I want to see what happens when different form are crossed, to learn how the genes for different traits recombine, to probe the possibilities of combinations not seen before.

Strangely, the "obvious" reason for hybridizing, which I stated above--to create new and better varieties--is not one of my top priorities. Of course, it would be nice to produce something that becomes popular, is enjoyed by many, and is regarded as an important improvement. If that were my prime goal, however, I would not choose to work with wide crosses and species. The most direct route to a creating popular new irises is to start with the best of the current garden cultivars.

Each hybridizer no doubt has his or her own special motivations. For me, it is mostly an expression of my own fascination with the irises, coupled with the hope of contributing in some small way to bringing more of the potential of diverse types and species into our gardens.


 Tom Waters

February 2011

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Unless otherwise noted, all text and illustrations copyright Tom Waters and all photographs copyright Tom or Karen Waters. Please do not reproduce without permission.