Mutant black-eyed Susans

  • Peter Guertin's mutation rudbeckia. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Dr. Kevin Vaughn's sempervivums.

  • Ratibida pinnata. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman—

  • Elaine Guertin daylily's alongside her hand, for size comparison. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman—

  • Pat Leuchtman Staff image/Andy Castillo

Published: 8/12/2019 11:12:11 AM

In mid-July, I received an email from Peter Guertin in Orange who told me about the mutant black-eyed Susans he had growing in his garden. He included several photos of those black eyes. One looked like a smile in the middle of the flower. One looked like a fat caterpillar growing across the center of the blossom. One blossom had two black eyes, almost back to back creating two attached blossoms. They were very odd flowers indeed. I was delighted to be invited to come and see them for myself.

Guertin’s email also passed on information from Dr. Kevin Vaughn.

“From what Dr. Kevin Vaughn has told me, they are called cristate or fastigiate mutants. The normal plant meristem (growing point) is shaped like a dome. In the cristate type, the meristem converts to a linear structure.” That at least explained to me that mutant plants do exist, and they take different forms. But who was Dr. Kevin Vaughn giving this information?

I should have known because right on the shelf near my desk is a beautifully illustrated book, “Beardless Irises: A Plant for Every Garden Situation” by Kevin C. Vaughn. It turns out Vaughn has many strings to his bow. Almost literally.

Guertin grew up with Elaine McCobb, who he ultimately married, and Vaughn. As a 9-year-old child, Vaughn had already begun growing a collection of Siberian Iris, but he, Guertin and McCobb became friends through the music classes in their school. McCobb has now retired from teaching but continues to play clarinet with many local bands, and Vaughn, who now lives in Oregon, plays a multiplicity of woodwinds with many orchestras, as well as carrying on in the plant world.

The Guertins remain dear friends of Vaughn and they showed me all the daylily hybrids he had sent them. Many of these were rejects from his daylily hybridizing efforts. But they were still beautiful.

Vaughn also hybridizes succulents and has a new book titled “Sempervivum: A Gardener's Perspective of the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks.” I am amazed that there are now 7,000 varieties of sempervivum available to gardeners. Guertin gave me a tour of some of the ‘hens and chicks’ that Vaughn had sent to him. I can hardly comprehend how many forms a particular kind of plant can take.

When I got home, I went and looked at the black-eyed Susans in my garden. No mutants there. But right next to them was a clump of similar plants. The leaves were much finer, and the brown eye was small and looked a little like a blunt ice cream cone. There were not as many petals and they were also very fine. I did find 43 rudbeckias varieties listed and pictured online, but none seemed exactly like mine. I think it is Ratibida pinnata, sometimes known as Missouri coneflower. It is not a mutant.

Between Guertin’s mutant black-eyed Susans, Vaughn’s hybrids and my ratibida, I realized there are many ways that plants have changed over the ages. I am sure many of you have visited Smith College’s Lyman Plant House for the spectacular spring bulb show or the autumnal Chrysanthemum show. I hope you have also visited the fascinating 60-foot mural telling the story of plants through the ages. 3,500 million years ago there was only bacteria and that lived in the water.

In the early Devonian period, 400 million years ago, the first tiny vascular plants, plants with food and water-conducting tissue, began to evolve. Then came the Devonian Explosion that “resulted in plants becoming more complex, evolving roots, leaves and more complex reproductive structures.” In the late Devonian period, trees evolved.

The late carboniferous period was a time when trees in tropical swamps lived and died, ultimately transformed into coal.

It was not until the Cretaceous periods, 130 to 60 million years ago, that flowering plants of all sorts arose along with animal pollinators.

We are now in the Holocene era, from the birth of agriculture, breeding plants, and moving plants around the world.

More specifically but amazingly in just the last 200 years or so, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) were at work discovering ways that plants could be manipulated. 

Now we gardeners wait for the arrival of plant catalogs to tell us about the latest hybrids available for our gardens. The very first farmers attended to the strongest, biggest, most delicious or other beneficial attributes, and took the seed from those plants to have stronger, better plants the following year. Then came cross-pollinating.

The reason for creating hybrids is to give us bigger or smaller plants, different colors, different flower forms, more dependability, or more tolerance of heat or cold.

Nowadays, hybrids can also be created by genetic engineering/gene modification. There is a lot of debate over the wisdom of GMOs, which is a story for another day, but it certainly is a technique that is being used today.

For myself, I enjoy native plants, cross-pollinated plants, and surprising mutated plants. I am glad I got to visit the beauties and surprises of the Guertin garden.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: commonweeder.com.


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