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Selecting for Color

Moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), a low-growing plant, flowers dependably in July with 1-inch wide blossoms that look a bit like a rose, but more delicate, as though made of silk — in every color but blue or purple. The plant loves heat and sun, and thrives in dry soil. One of the few annuals I grow.

Years ago I bought plants, but since then I've enjoyed volunteers. They pop up in the oddest places, but the seedlings are easy to recognize because the leaves are distinctive: a succulent, fat needle-shape.This year I decided I'd like more.

What I bought was originally the cream variety of the Sundial strain. At garden centers in late spring, you can buy flats of these portulaca separately by color, but for the home gardener, portulaca seed is sold mostly in packets of mixed colors.

The Sundials, in addition to the basic color, sometimes show magenta-pink highlights. The combination of the gentle cream with just a little of the vivid magenta, somehow seems adorable to me: I get all mushy looking at it.

I found other single colors available: at Thompson & Morgan, Sundial Peppermint (pale pink with magenta streaks) and Sundial Mango (creamy orange, but it appears no magenta). In 1999, Sundial Peach won the prestigious All-America award: Burpee is selling it still. But no cream.

Then I called the Central Massachusetts Garden Center in Lunenburg, and talked to grower Tom Brooks, who pointed me to Stokes Seeds. They have it! — and a wide variety of other single-color Sundials, too. (Portulaca is Tom's daughter Lauren's favorite plant: she likes the bright colored ones). Stokes sells to both commercial growers and home gardeners.

But all the Sundials are F1 hybrids: first-generation crosses. When F1s interpollinate, the F2 generation shows much more variability in traits ... but generations after that tend to become more and more stable. Since it's been years since I bought plants, and I have pulled up the few other colors that grew, I have probably produced a strain that not only has the color I like, but also is more likely to come true in future generations, than plants grown anew from the F1 seeds.

If I want more of this wonderful color, my best bet is to save my own seed, and start it in protected flats to get as much germination as possible. Next year!

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 31 January 2003

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For more information

Sundial Portulacas

Plant Genetics: detailed information on the site of the Farmer Cooperative Genome Project