Plants that nature never made

What gardener hasn’t wished for the impossible: cobalt blue roses, frost-hardy petunias, lawn grass that never needs mowing? In hindsight, maybe we should have been more careful what we wished for. These wishes and more may soon come true, in the form of transgenic ornamental plants.

We’re already there. The world’s first Frankenflower, a bluish purple carnation containing a petunia gene, has been on the market since 1996. A truly blue rose (achieved in 2004 with the help of pansy and iris genes) is due to be released soon. Several transgenic lawn grasses have already been developed, including low-mow and Roundup-ready varieties. Future possibilities include colored grass, or perhaps grass that glows when stepped on, thanks to a luminescence gene. The list is endless—for a truly frightening glimpse into the possible future of horticulture, just Google “transgenic ornamental plants.”

What happens when these genetic freaks cross-pollinate in nature, as has already happened in field trials of herbicide-resistant grass? The response that sterility can also be genetically engineered does not reassure me. Artificial sterility, following the model of a transgenic Liquidambar styraciflua, is being field-tested in many ornamental woody plants to “solve” their invasiveness. But what happens to the insects, birds, and animals that depend on the flowers, fruits, and seeds of these plants? What happens if artificial sterility is accidentally induced in our fruit and nut trees? Since when have man’s biological interventions (DDT, the Green Revolution, 2,4-D) had only the desired outcome, with no unforeseen negative effects?

As far as flowers, the consensus seems to be that no harm can come of altering something that’s purely ornamental. But there is no such thing. All so-called ornamental plants have their own profound reasons for looking and behaving as they do. Magnolias have huge, fragrant flowers because they evolved before flying insects and depended on beetles for pollination. Starburst-shaped allium seed heads were built to act like tumbleweeds to disperse their seeds. White flowers tend to be especially fragrant because they have to attract pollinators by some means other than color.

What happens to insect populations—not to mention the birds and animals that eat bugs—when the color, shape, scent, size, or blooming time of a flower is altered in a way that could not possibly occur in nature? As John Muir put it so well, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” What unimagined consequences are looming?

If we’re horrified by the prospect of transgenic ornamental plants—and I believe most gardeners are—we have only to look in the mirror to lay the blame. Unlike genetically engineered foods, Frankenflowers have not been forced onto an unwilling public. We gardeners, and I’m as guilty as the next one, created the demand ourselves, starting with our love of nontransgenic novelties.

Why are we so willing to pay an arm and a leg for an orange-leaved heuchera, a scented camellia, a corkscrew rush, a rudbeckia with no petals? Hybridization, a process that does not violate nature’s ground rules, has given us scores of marigolds in the yellow–orange–red range, and what do we want? A white one. Given thousands of hybrid roses of pink, red, mauve, yellow, white, and assorted blends, what do we want? A blue one.

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