New Watermelon Breeding Project 2018 and Beyond…

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Today i’m sharing about a new plant breeding project i am planning on working on. The Watermelon Landrace project I’ve been developing for Northern Colorado has started to progress quite well and i am very pleased in the direction it is heading. This past summer of 2017 i harvested many that were of decent size, grew in my soil, and tasted excellent. I started to eliminate the ones that still develop blossom end rot and other poor traits such as funky shape or poor flavor. Starting to only save the best seeds.

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I originally added some Colorado Red-seeded Citron melons to my watermelon landrace because i wanted to breed watermelons with red seeds and frost tolerance. Citron Melons are supposed to be pretty damn hardy and supposedly have this desired frost tolerance. The problem? Citron melons aren’t exactly edible. They are not poisonous, just super hard white flesh and bland bland bland. Actually they are a very old heirloom type of watermelon called the Colorado Preserving Melon or the Colorado Red-seeded Citron. Apparently they have lots of natural pectin in them which is useful for making jams and jellies for toast. And did i mention they can breed quite easily with modern watermelons?

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When it comes to the Colorado Red-seeded citron i absolutely love their red seeds. I really want that trait in my watermelon landrace. I guess there are a few red seeded watermelon varieties out there already, but they are few and far between.

So, what happens when you breed a modern red or yellow fleshed watermelon with a citron melon? Well, i don’t exactly know. Yet. This year i planted a few of the red seeds i harvested from the citrons from last year that were mixed in with the landrace. The seeds i got were all still red so i figured they probably self pollinated. Regardless i added them to the landrace watermelon seed i planted this year in hopes that they would grow (not die), cross, and produce viable seed.

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I’m happy to report that so far that part of the project was a success. The top photo above shows what i think are confirmed F1 Citron x Watermelon hybrids. I suppose they could be F2, but i’m just going to assume F1. The seed was harvested from fruits that showed the characteristic “white cloverleaf striped mottling” that Citron Melons have, and from fruits that had hard white bland flesh when all the other watermelons had ripe yellow or red flesh. How do i know these seeds are hybrids? Well because the seeds were not red this time! In fact they were all different kinds of patterns and colors. Some red-black, some pure black, some greyish, some grey-black-mottled, etc.

Looking forward to growing this line of seeds out and reselecting for the traits i want. Red seeds would be awesome, but not necessary. Frost tolerance would be even more awesome, but not necessary. Even without those traits what impresses me most about Colorado Citron Melons is the fact that they grow so darn well in my climate, with my poor soil, and still grow full size melons even when over crowded with other watermelons that don’t do well, and even thrive with relatively low amounts of water. These traits alone are so very desirable to be folded into my watermelon landrace that this project is so exciting even now when i’m just beginning.

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I’ve heard a rumor that way back the Soviet Union (USSR) did lots of plant breeding experiments (maybe because of the breeding genius known as Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin), and part of these experiments involved Wide Hybridization or Distant Hybridization, which means crazy breeding like interspecific, intergeneric, intrageneric, and intraspecific breeding and attempted crosses that most people would never try or attempt. Some of these crosses were successful. What i’m interested in is the Soviets work on Citron-Watermelon hybrids. Apparently they experimented with these long before i have and rumor has it that they were able to recover some nice tasting watermelons that were able to be stored for several months into the winter. Awesome. I will update this blog post when i have more information about this. There are already supposed “Winter Watermelons” that supposedly keep for several months, but i’m sure those can be improved, or i can just breed my own winter watermelon variety. Exciting stuff!

Edit Nov-15-2017:

Okay, so i finally received a copy of the rare book titled “Wide hybridization of plants (Otdalennaya gibridizatsiya rastenii) Proceedings of the Conference on Wide Hybridization of Plants and Animals; collection of reports” from inter-library loan. A mouthful, i know. Thanks to WorldCat to helping me track it down. Not many copies of it left around.

Originally written and published in Russian in the U.S.S.R. in 1958, and Translated into English in Jerusalem Israel in 1962. The Soviet Union was known in those times for great scientific advances including launching the space race, the first cosmonaut in space, Sputnik, and other crazy medical advances like the Skenar and Bacteriophage medicine, to strange sci-fi spy weapons in the Cold War. Apparently they also were advancing in novel plant breeding techniques and programs. Michurin was one of these guy’s. If you’ve never heard of him or his plant breeding techniques and success go look him up. I honestly don’t know much about him myself, but i do know he was an accomplished plant breeder, most notably with wide genetic crosses that noone else thought would work.

Anyway, back to the Interspecific Hybridization of Watermelon work done by the Russians with Citron x Watermelon crosses in 1958. Turns out they did have success with it. The F1 generation was mostly like the wild Citron with bland hard tasteless flesh. F1 and F2 Hybrids with Citrullus colocynthoides are similar to their wild Citron parent genetics. Late-ripening, coarse compact unsweet fruit pulp and a thick rind. Quite unremarkable. But that’s what i was already expecting. One cool note though is that some of these in future segregating generations or backcrosses to domestic watermelons can produce some sweet watermelons that have some storage ability. Meaning they ship well and can store for many months. In fact some of them get sweeter over time whereas domestic watermelons do not. So all in all some cool potential in the project after all! I’m even more excited now!

If you want to read the Soviet’s 1958 watermelon research yourself, i have taken the effort to scan some of the book into a PDF for you. It’s not the whole book, but it has the relevant chapter on Watermelon and Citron crosses.

Here’s the PDF: Wide_hybridization_in_plants_TSITSIN

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In [2017] I bred A New Pea Variety With Purple Seeds!

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these are new F2 seeds recovered from some pea crosses i did i think in spring/summer of 2015. So two years ago. This one is the descendant of a cross done between a rare, and nearly extinct variety of pea that has a dominant gene for having a purple testa color over the seed coat. The parent variety called ‘Purple Passion’ has small round dark purple seeds and grows on thin wispy and pathetically weak vines. Hardly seems domesticated at all. The other parent of the cross was a “super dwarf”, or Extra Dwarf as some literature calls it, of a short (1-2″ tall) but robust pea with thick stems, big leaves, large seeds, and a charming personality. For a plant that is. Not that plants have personalities, but whatever. The result in the F2 generation is this. A large good sized seed with the characteristic dark purple testa seed coat color. Pretty awesome. I’m excited to furthur grow this line out and see what it becomes. This is different from the Brick-red seeded peas known as ‘Biskopens’ or ‘Sweedish Red’, which are a brick-red color rather than dark purple / violet and which is a recessive trait rather than a dominant one. Biskopens is a neat variety in it’s own right, and i have recovered some interesting F2 recombinant offspring from some crosses of that variety as well.

Not sure what i should name it yet. Depends on what it turns into really. Assuming i was able to recover the “super dwarf” genetics at some point i might name that substrain something like ‘Purple Midget’ or something like that. haha

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Parent Variety: ‘Purple Passion’
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F1 seeds of cross between ‘Purple Passion’ Pea and ‘Mighty Midget’ Pea

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Growing Watermelon Landrace in Colorado 2017 Success!!!

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Most of the watermelons are done for the year and eaten already. Many of them were good tasty Canary Yellows. One Salmon-yellow and one Pink were so/so. I’m trying to not save seeds from now on from any that taste bland like the salmon-yellows. Or others that grow poorly. I think i will also start selecting against those that have bacterial rot at the flower end and those that split open. But i’m happy in the direction these are headed. I have a side breeding project where i am letting some Colorado red-seeded citron being pollinated by the landrace watermelon. I’m hoping that in the future that leads to a more cold-tolerant yellow fleshed red-seeded watermelon strain. Some seeds from those are all crazy colors this year with some partially red-black and others with unique gray spots. Just a side project for now.

Generally the small bowl-sized watermelons are from my garden. I had the opportunity to have a small local organic farmer grow some of the landrace watermelons for me in fertilized soil and on black plastic. Those ones grew a little bigger for him. I was able to purchase and collect a few of those back. The long one looked like a yellow-fleshed Lofthouse Charleston Gray strain to me… but i don’t know for sure. I cut it open a little early. Apparently the long ones take longer to ripen so the dry three-tendril method didn’t exactly work on those, but it did for my small round ones!

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All in All i’m happy to finally be able to grow decent sized tasty watermelons here in the heart of Northern Colorado. Where few are able to succeed at growing watermelon at all! Success!!!!

Improving the Tomato Genome by breeding with wild tomatoes [2017]

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Solanum peruvianum (wild tomato with desert tolerance)

So i haven’t written a blog post in some time. Sorry about that. It has been very hectic this year. That’s not to say that i’m completely dead. And despite my busyness and absence i am still dabbling a little bit in the garden and plant breeding scene. I didn’t have the time, energy, or space to work on my purple Indian Corn or Teosinte this year. I barely made room for beans, peas, tomatoes, and a row of watermelon.

The beans are my special four corners native beans which include, New Mexico Red Appaloosa (aka. Gila River bean), Anasazi, Zuni Gold, Rio Zape, and maybe a few others. The Peas are a large growout of my 17-23 different varieties of genetically unique and rare pea varieties, some of which are segregating crosses that i did two seasons ago. And tough i don’t have many pictures i will post one below of a purple podded umbellatum-type (aka. crown pea) where all the pods come out in a jumble all at once. To have a purple podded one of these is new and kind of cool. I hope to have a yellow and red-podded umbellatum-type pea someday. The watermelon are the result of mine and Joseph Lofthouse’s Watermelon Landrace project. Joseph Lofthouse seems to be world famous now for his widely successful landrace seed varieties and breeding techniques.

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Purple Podded Umbellatum Crown Pea

Anyway, back to the tomatoes. The Tomatoes are a brand new project and sort of an offshoot of one of Joseph’s new landrace breeding projects as well and a few other fellow collaborators and breeders as well. It all started when Joseph was working on wanting to convert tomatoes to a landrace like many of his other successful crops. But there are a number of problems with that and domestic tomatoes in general.

The first problem is that domestic tomatoes are entirely self pollinating and don’t outcross all that much and have tiny closed-up flowers. Another problem is that domestic tomato flowers are not very attractive to pollinators. And the third major problem is that domestic tomatoes went through several genetic bottleneck selection events when they were domesticated that they have a very narrow genetic base. This narrow genetic base means that 1. Most tomatoes are subject to easily succumbing to disease and 2. that when they do outcross there is not much variation anyway. An average bad-tasting disease susceptible red tomato that crosses with another average bad-tasting disease susceptible red tomato means that in the end all you really get is more of the same.

My interest in all of this starts with the basic fact that in my climate here in Northern Colorado with my soil (mostly a dry clayish sandy soil where mostly desert plants grow), and the high altitude with intense sunlight and UV and the dry wind that wicks moisture out of the ground means that most garden varieties of anything don’t do all that well here unless intensely babied. This applies most especially to tomatoes. Even worse when it comes to Heirloom tomatoes. Sure heirloom tomatoes generally taste better, but to have a tomatoe plant produce like ONE good tomato through a whole season… That’s a MAJOR FAILURE in my book.

There are lots of tomato freaks out there that try to tell me that here in Colorado i can grow ANY tomato variety and be successful. And while that might be true if i replaces all my soil with compost or potting mix and provided massive amounts of water, and started them all early and planted them all out perfectly then yes maybe that would be true. But that’s not what i want to do, not should i have to do that. I should be able to just start a tomato plant and plant it where i want and not have to worry about it all that much and have it produce a decent harvest (whatever that happens to be). And not have to worry about disease, or growing slow, or not being adapted to my soil or the intense UV light or whatever. That’s where all this plant breeding comes in.

The goal(s)

  • To breed a superior tomato variety that does well for me (in dry N. Colorado)
  • To increase the genetic diversity in the tomato genome by using wild tomatoes
  • To create or recreate a tomato that is highly attractive to pollinators
  • To create a population of tomatoes that are highly outcrossing
  • To create a tomato that i actually think tastes good and NOT like cardboard

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wild tomato seeds. photo courtesy of Joseph Lofthouse

This project is still in it’s early stage, but it is progressing nicely. On Joseph’s end he is having huge success by using wild tomatoes bred with domestic tomatoes that have large showy flowers with exerted stigmas and have lots of pollen available that make them attractive to bumblebees. He is using mostly Solanum habrochaites but is starting to branch out to other wild tomatoes as well. Others are working on breeding tomatoes that produce a good harvest in under 100 days from being direct seeded and that have frost tolerance.

On my end i am experimenting with as many wild tomatoes that i can. I am evaluating several accessions of wild Galapagos tomatoes which so far are not doing much. The S. habrochaites also are not doing much. The ones i am having excitement from are the Solanum peruvianum which have silvery leaves and desert tolerance (in the roots) and a F1 hybrid between a domestic tomato and Solanum pennellii which has a different form of desert tolerance (in the leaves). I am excited about these genetics since they seem to be growing very well in my garden. The largest of any of my tomatoes is this F1 hybrid of S. pennellii. It is HUGE!!

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F1 hybrid between domestic tomato and Solanum pennellii
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Flowers of an F1 hybrid between domestic tomato and Solanum pennellii
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F2 cross of domestic tomato and Solanum habrochaites

A Teosinte Christmas in Colorado

So, i know I’ve blogged a bit about experimentally growing Teosinte in my post about growing prehistoric corn and also in my post about differences between teosinte species. Both posts have gotten quite a bit of traffic over the years and have brought people to my blog who are interested in Teosinte specifically.

For those of you who don’t know Teosinte is a progenitor to modern Corn (Also known as Maize), which is still able to interbreed with Corn. Some teosinte is annual, while others are perennial (or maybe bi-annual). There are many people who are interested in breeding perennial teosinte with corn to make perennial or bi-annual corn.

The major problem with trying to grow Teosinte in a moderate climate as here in Colorado in the United States is that it is adapted to grow in the climate of mexico and our growing season just isn’t really long enough. Even more so since Teosinte is day-length sensitive and does not even start to tassel, silk, and pollinate until the days get short and the sunlight shifts deeper into the red spectrum. By the time that happens here it is usually around August and often we get snow by September or October. Definitely not enough time for Teosinte or Corn seeds to mature and dry down for saving. …Or is it?!

Well, this year it just happened to turn out just barely long enough. I’m calling it my Christmas miracle! haha. I think it was a combination of it being a La Nina weather year with an unusually warm fall with no snow until here in December. But also with the fact that i dug up my clump of teosinte plants and put them in a pot in the garage. Though they were a bit unhappy in the garage and were touching the ceiling.

Still i was able to keep them in there long enough to hand pollinate them. But to be honest i thought i had again failed to get viable Teosinte seeds. But when the plants were dead i went out and happened to find some! Above is a picture of what i believe to be seeds of ‘Zea mexicana’ teosinte seeds.

If there is one moral of this story that you should take away it is this: Never give up even when everyone else thinks you are crazy or tell you that what you believe is impossible. I learned this in gardening from my friend Joseph Lofthouse of Utah. He has had success with so many of his unusual crops that no one else in his valley of Utah is able to grow. He often starts with many varieties of a plant as possible and grows as many as he can. Often more than 90% of them die or fail to produce seeds. But he only needs a few that do. Once he gets seeds he can start to effort to plant them year after year and adapt them to his climate. If they still fail to thrive he lets them die or culls them off himself. But he has a variety of unusual crops, such as Landrace Watermelon adapted to Utah (and by extension Colorado), Landrace Cantaloupe, Landrace inter-species hybrid squashes, Tomatoes that are self-incompatible and are highly attractive to bees (modern tomatoes are not at all and are highly inbred), and more.

 

On the left here is a photo of one small cob of a teosinte hybrid (zea diploperennis-corn hybrid from the USDA) pollinated with what i believe to be flour or field corn pollen. On the right is the same teosinte-corn hybrid cob line but i believe this one was self pollinated with its own pollen. It seems to have popcorn heritage as the seeds show popcorn / flint corn characteristics.

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Here is another strain of day-length neutral teosinte (decended from Zea mexicana) that a collaborator Joseph Lofthouse of Utah is growing and having success with. I believe he got the seed originally from NativeseedsSEARCH in Arizona. He decided to test if it makes good popcorn.

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Here is my Teosinte clump in the summer of 2016.

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Here is the same spot with snow on it now in winter.

If you’d like to follow the discussion about growing teosinte in places it is not normally supposed to grow (or other unusual crops) then visit the Alan Bishop Homegrown Goodness plant breeding forum here!