Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Around the Garden

A call-in radio program recently introduced me to the expression “dirt road sport,"  a southern locution meaning a youngish man trying ostentatiously to rise beyond his station.

I had thought till then that one of the more unusual meanings of “sport” was the botanical one, in which an individual plant spontaneously produces a variant bud as a result of mutation.

For some reason, conifers are notable for doing this, and often result in brand-new cultivars being brought into the nursery trade. One of the more common ones is the Dwarf Alberta spruce – regular readers may recall that TreeFanatic is not fond of this ill-named mutant.

Still, the way that the plant was developed is pretty wonderful – sports (sometimes called “witches’ brooms”) are removed from the parent White spruce, and propagated via infinitesimally small tissue slices cultivated in a growing medium.

This kind of propagation is virtually cloning, since all the offspring will have the same DNA as each other.  Theoretically, all of the plants derived from one sport will be identical to one another, but not to the original plant, because of the mutation.

Solid Green Abutilon
Variegated Leaf Abutilon
Entire collections of conifers that resulted from sports may be found on the UConn campus and at the New York Botanical Garden: wonderful little White pine smurfs disport themselves amidst their weeping, leaning and contorted cousins. 

Sometimes sports take the direction of leaf variegation, and the resulting plants bear leaves with white or yellow speckles, blotches or stripes.

While many of these variegated plants are strikingly beautiful, some in the marketplace look decidedly unwell, since yellow spots or speckles are often signs of disease or insect attack.

A Reverting Dwarf Alberta Spruce
Another problem with plants bred from sports is that they will sometimes revert to the original plant’s appearance.  The tree shown at right is in front of a fast-food restaurant on Rte 3, just over the line in Cromwell – a high-traffic area that isn’t ideal for a show-stopper like this one!

 Nursery plants are a huge business, as gardening and landscaping become more and more trendy; new and different plants carry a premium. But much of the adventure may be gone from scouting for sports; veteran plant hunters talk about locating tall trees with sports fifty or sixty feet above ground.  Those not crazy enough to climb that high came up with a different approach: shoot out the sport!

Perhaps there is another meaning to “dirt road sport” that the language mavens haven’t twigged to so far.

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