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Botanical Garden reaps rewards

First plant exports in province’s history

As proprietor of the Philadelphus Starbright, Dr. Wilf Nicholls, left, accepts the first royalty cheque from Michael Murray of Murray’s Garden Centre in Portugal Cove. After years of breeding, selection, evaluation and testing, the Botanical Garden is now exporting the province’s first ornamental plants for market.

By Kelly Foss

For almost 100 years, the export of plants from this island to mainland Canada has been restricted because of serious potato diseases in our soil. With modern plant production techniques and disease-free certification, all that has changed.
For the first time in the province’s history, 20,000 ornamental plants have left the island and been sold to nurseries in Ontario and British Columbia. That plant is Philadelphus Starbright, a brand new mock orange shrub bred by Dr. Wilf Nicholls, director of Memorial University Botanical Garden.

After years of breeding, selection, evaluation and testing Newfoundland and Labrador’s first plants for export, the work is finally beginning to pay off. Dr. Nicholls recently accepted the Botanical Garden’s first royalty cheque as proprietor of the Philadelphus Starbright from the proceeds of those first exports. The presentation was made by Michael Murray of Murray’s Garden Centre in Portugal Cove, a partner in the program developed to bring these plants to market. Nationwide, the ornamental plant industry is third only to wheat and canola is farm-gate value.

“For decades all of the hardy plants being sold in the province were imports,” said Dr. Nicholls. “My goal has been to increase production of plants within Newfoundland and Labrador and replace some of the imports with locally grown plants, using the Botanical Gardens collections. Many of the plants we’ll be exporting have already existed for many years, but have not been available commercially. In addition to that, and at a much slower pace, is the breeding of new plants by Todd Boland, a research horticulturist.”

The Philadelphus Starbright is a cross between a Canadian Philadelphus and an Asian Philadelphus.

“We called it Starbright because the back of the calyx is very dark and as it opens it looks like a little star,” explained Dr. Nicholls. “Through breeding we have managed to come up with a plant that has the flower quality of the Asian species, with large white flowers instead of small creamy ones. But we’ve also retained the drought and cold hardiness of the Canadian native. The plant is also sterile. So it’s not going to produce a whole bunch of seed and become invasive.”

The plant was produced for market under a project called Plant Atlantic, a program of research and development of new and under used ornamental plants for the Atlantic Canadian nursery industry. The goal is to establish a local production industry. The project was made possible by a grant provided by the Atlantic Innovation Fund (AIF) of ACOA.

“What we hope to have happen is that more and more proprietary introductions go out the door,” said Dr. Nicholls. “Proprietary introductions like this net us royalties. Today’s royalties aren’t huge at just 35 cents a plant. But when these get into full production Canada-wide and worldwide, and you start getting them produced in the hundreds of thousands, then 35 cents a plant suddenly becomes more useful.”

Newfoundland and Labrador still remains under a plant and soil quarantine, but by using tissue-culture facilities at the Nova Scotia Agriculture College and
the disease-free certified facility of Murray’s, the Botanical Gardens has found an acceptable way around that ban.

“We can’t just grow plants here and ship them out,” said Dr. Nicholls. “They have to be grown in a sterile environment. All of these plants are sent from us, with no roots or soil, over to Nova Scotia where they are tissue cultured into little plantlets and then brought back to Newfoundland. From there they go straight to Murray’s Garden Centre where they are kept in a quarantined
area and planted in new potting mix. In that state we can then export the little plugs with a clean bill of health.”

Dr. Nicholls hopes one day to get a tissue culture facility at the Botanical Garden so they can release the plants in a sterile state by themselves.

“Our AIF project was about collegial research and development,” he said. “Nova Scotia had the experience and equipment to do this work, while Murray’s had certified growing conditions so they formed the team. Unfortunately funding for the program has now ended and we’re looking to get some bridge financing to keep this exciting program going until it is sustainable.”