It all started with potatoes. Rosanna Freyre came to the U.S. in 1990 from Peru. She did her PhD on potato molecular genetics at Michigan State University, having obtained her master's degree on germplasm enhancement of sweet potato at the International Potato Center in Lima. She went on to do a postdoc on genetics in dry beans at UC Davis. It was not until 1996, when Rosanna moved to New Hampshire, that she got into ornamental breeding.
Rosanna (fourth from right) with her students
From tomatillos to Wildcats
"During the first year in New Hampshire, I was looking at what crops to work with. I became interested in tomatillos and did germplasm field evaluations for two years". She then got in contact with Proven Winners partner Pleasant View Gardens, and that's how she got acquainted with ornamental breeding. The first ornamental species she worked with was Anagallis monellii, and she never looked back.
Wildcat Blue and Wildcat Mandarin
The Anagallis cultivars Rosanna created in New Hampshire are part of the Wildcat series: Wildcat Blue, Wildcat Orange, Wildcat Mandarin, and Wildcat Pink, some of which are still in the market. "While not in the Proven Winners category, they were included in the Proven Selections and have been relatively successful". Her Browallia Endless series were also initially in the Proven Selections series, but a few years ago they got upgraded to become Proven Winners.
Browallia Endless Illumination and Endless Flirtation
Commercial vs academic success
The Anagallis and Browallia cultivars were followed by a Nolana cultivar, which wasn't a commercial success because of the difficulty in rooting its cuttings. It wasn't a complete disaster, however: "My MS student Amy Douglas did very good basic research, and we published various articles”.
So even if a crop isn't a hit commercially, it can still be an educational success. "With Nolana, there was hardly any information available; no knowledge on floral development or compatibility between species, so we did quite a lot of research on it. It was very interesting".
One of Rosanna's most impressive breeding feats is turning Ruellia into a commercial success. This plant, also known as the Mexican petunia, was presumably introduced to the U.S. somewhere in the 1940s from Mexico. It became especially popular in Florida, because it's a very resilient plant: it can tolerate very dry environments, but it also has no problem being an aquatic plant.
"The original plant, what I call the wild species," Rosanna explains, "flowers profusely”. Flowers last only one day, and it produces many fruits. Each capsule contains about twenty seeds which spread far and wide, giving Ruellia a reputation as an invasive species. It’s found in natural areas not only in Florida: it's found in Texas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and even Hawaii.
A solution was on the horizon though: since the 1970s, a Ruellia cultivar called 'Purple Showers' has been very popular. Its origins are unknown, so it isn’t a patented variety. It is very vigorous, and it has one major advantage: it is sterile, making it an excellent choice for landscaping in Florida.
"Rick Brown from Riverview Flower Farms grows ‘Purple Showers’, and it has been very successful for him. He brought to me the idea to breed other Ruellia with other flower colors”. The existing pink Ruellia, 'Chi Chi', was very invasive, while 'Snow White' didn't have a good habit or branching.
Rosanna started the breeding program in 2007, and so far it has resulted in two series of commercially available Ruellia. The Mayan series consists of Mayan Purple, Mayan White, Mayan Pink, and Mayan Compact Purple. Three new cultivars have just been released as part of the semi-dwarf Aztec series: a purple one, a light pink flower, and a novelty for ruellia, a white and pink bi-color.
Rosanna tells us she has good contacts with commercial breeding companies regarding her Ruellia varieties. Horticulture Marketing Associates has licensed all of them so far. It's a non-exclusive license, so there's other companies that are also trialing and choosing some of them for release: Costa Farms has licensed three varieties, and Proven Winners has licensed one so far (as Machu Purple), and others are still on trial.
From trial to garden
Breeding a new variety isn't done overnight. "Once we select a particular clone, we have to do replicated and multi-location trials." With the data garnered from field trials, the cultivar is submitted for release. The first step is approval by a departmental committee at the university.
Once that hurdle's taken, because Rosanna works with an invasive genus, she needs to submit to the UF/IFAS Invasive Plant Working Group as well, which is a multi-department committee of various faculty members and people from the industry. "That process is even more involved, because we have to prove that our plants are not fertile or have very low fertility, by doing manual hybridizations, in both directions, with different fertile clones”. For instance, pollen is used to pollinate fertile plants, in order to demonstrate that it doesn't actually fertilize the ovules or produce seeds.
The next step is the university's cultivar release committee, which is comprised of the dean of research and several department chairs from different departments. "I present the data, and then there's a vote on whether the cultivars are good enough for release".
Once the cultivars are released, Rosanna tells us, she can submit patent applications. And when that's happened, the plants can finally be licensed to private companies.
Where there are license agreements, there are royalties. The university gets a cut of the royalties on an honor basis from the private company. When those royalties come in, they are divided: "A portion goes to my program for funding, a portion goes to the Florida Foundation Seed Producers
, and a portion goes personally to the breeder. So it gets divided three-ways."
Training new breeders
In addition to breeding new cultivars, Rosanna also helps new breeders kick-start their career. Her helpers have all been undergraduate students, some of whom have gone on to work in the industry, such as Adam Moseley, who's now a trial manager at Proven Winners, and Sofia Chang, who’s currently working at Costa Farms.
The undergraduate students are very involved in the breeding process, Rosanna says. "They help in all stages. Victor Zayas, who worked during all his undergraduate degree and is now continuing with his MS, is actually a co-inventor of the most recently released three cultivars. He was really involved in the selection process and evaluations, so it's fair that he gets not only his name in the publication, but also a share of the royalties."
So, Rosanna not just breeds new varieties, she also helps develop people's careers. Or, as she says with a smile, "I’m breeding new breeders."