June 18, 2015

Anthurium hybridizing--a Nearly Lost Art

The Nearly Lost Art of Anthurium Hybridizing

Anthurium 'Wonder Boy'
photo courtesy of Craig Morell
Twenty or thirty years ago, there were more people trying to hybridize anthuriums in South Florida, but many of the great aroid collectors and "plantsmiths" have left us. Further, the fervor for new aroids ( members of the Araceae Family) has also passed, largely in favor of cute, flowering anthuriums for the container plant market, or for the larger birdnest type landscape species.
Long ago when I started working with tropical plants, there were eye-catching foliage-type Anthuriums which I occasionally saw in conservatories or in catalogs, plants with magnificent silver veins set onto rich, jade-colored foliage which often had a microcrystalline look to it. In the right lighting, the foliage looked as if it were made of crystal velvet. The foliage could be larger than a serving platter, and to a novice plantsman, it was the stuff of dreams. Many aroid-ophiles know the hybridizers who made marvelous hybrids, such as John Banta in Alva, Florida; Denis and Bill Rotolante of Homestead, Florida; Enid Offolter of Davie, Florida and Dr. Jake Henny of the University of Florida.          
Moving forward to the local nursery world in the modern day, I recall seeing such plants at local plant shows, and on sales tables. Grown in large baskets of sphagnum moss, the plants grew quite well in our climate if given lots of water. These plants are now fairly rare except in the hands of plant collectors, and the demand has waned. Many years ago I had the good fortune to meet Tim Anderson from Palm Hammock Orchid Estate who started a number of plant breeding programs, notable in one program was a beautiful Anthurium  hybrid with an exceptional reddish hue overlaid onto jade, and also with rich reddish petioles. The foliage grew quite large and the plants grew robustly. Self-pollination of the plants was successful, and the resulting seedlings also grew well and fairly close to type. Tim called this hybrid selection 'Wonder Boy', and a number of plants have been distributed in the last 8-10 years. Just yesterday, I saw and photographed the propagation work of  local grower, horticulturist and hybridizer, Dr. Jeff Block at his garden, Nurturing Nature in South Miami. He has grown out several populations of 'Wonder Boy', and is selecting those with the best leaf color and leaf size. Grown in an epiphytic potting mix in large perforated pots, the plants grow quickly and to great size. Dr. Block is also making new hybrids, and we can look forward to seeing them in the coming years.  

Anthurium seedlings 2-3 months old
photo courtesy of Craig Morell

Anthurium seedlings 4-5 months old
photo courtesy of Craig Morell
This is encouraging news, since rather few growers want to spend the time on plant hybridizing anymore. There is more interest in making money in the nursery business than making great new plants, albeit a perfectly understandable point of business. So many of the "new" introductions seen at trade shows are trending to more compact plants, with uniform foliage for the potted plant market. The grand, imposing and inspiring plants of a generation ago are largely sequestered in private collections, plant society shows are growing smaller every year, and the interest in new species and hybrids in on the wane. It is heartening to see these trays of seedlings at Nurturing Nature, and he has been diligent in distributing plants to the local horticulture community. I can hope that soon we will see a resurgence in this group of gorgeous species, and maybe even a swell in demand for such plants which make such a statement in the landscape. With some fairly recent introductions of species with foliage that can reach 5 feet or more in length, there is much promise to the future of pattern-leaf Anthuriums, renewing a trend largely lost from the 1970s and 1980s. 

Anthurium newly transplanted
photo courtesy of Craig Morell

There is plenty of room in the horticulture world for new plants, or re-introductions of plants seen decades ago. We should expand our purchasing horizons and take a new look at the vast variety of plants available to us.

Anthurium 6-8 months from seed
photo courtesy of Craig Morell

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens