Cobaea scandens

The first flower on my Cobaea scandens opened today. I sowed the seed last year in January, got germination in March, and planted out the growing vine in May. Lo these many months, I have the first flower.


In hotter climates, this vine would grow 25 feet and flower profusely in one season. Not so much in mild-weathered San Francisco.

Normally, I am very pro-seed and I try to grow as much as possible from seed. But for C. scandens, I would recommend buying the plant. Germination was difficult, and a great deal of time, effort, and resources went into getting even one plant. Yes, I nicked the seeds. Yes, I sowed them edgewise. In fact, I worked every angle. But I still got only one plant from dozens of seeds.


Unless you desire the subtle pleasures of a similar experience, why not just buy the plant?

Do you have strong feelings about the benefits of seed propagation?

I generally do. For me, the most compelling arguments usually have something to do with promoting genetic diversity--especially with native plants whose ranges are decreasing with ongoing land development. As it happens, that opens up discussion about "natural ranges" and, perhaps surprisingly, "genetic diversity". In California, people argue about whether it's appropriate to grow seeds from the south in the north, and vice versa.

Some believe genetic material exported from one location will overwhelm material in other locations and thus reduce total diversity. Others believe genetic material is already flowing, and populations are already speciating--so it goes, so has it ever been. Absent a detailed genetic understanding, I tend favor the second viewpoint. We know animal populations benefit from gene flow--why not plants? (Note: There is much conflict about these subjects in scientific circles. Some of it is based on science and some of it is based on pseudoscience. Beware. Or rather, be aware.)

So I'm a supporter of genetic diversity. Well, who isn't. Gardeners, some of them, have strong feelings about monocultures. Those monocultures, driven by short-term economies of scale, are bad. We should promote more diversity. I wonder, is there a limit on that? How much diversity is worth preserving?

The Seed Savers Exchange notes a loss of apple tree varieties since 1900.
"In 1900 there were about 8,000 named varieties of apples in the U.S., but the vast majority are already extinct and the rest are steadily dying out. In an attempt to halt this constant genetic erosion, SSE has obtained all of the pre-1900 varieties that still exist in government collections and large private collections, but has only found about 700 that remain of the 8,000 known in 1900. SSE has developed the most diverse, public orchard in the U.S. where those 700 different varieties of 19th century apples are on display."

(Note: The printed catalog says there were only 7,000 named varieties of apples in the U.S. in 1900--and neither source cites a reference.)

Seven thousand varieties sounds like a lot of apples. Should I believe it? Were those apples really all that different from each other? Was each one was worth saving? Should I be upset about the loss of 6,000-7,000 apple varieties when there are still "about 700" remaining, plus what's been developed since 1900? How upset should I be? So far, I'm not losing any sleep over it. (Are you?)

I've been reading Steve Solomon's book, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times. It's about the the anticipated future decline of cheap oil and "the threat of harder times...prompting people to grow more food themselves" and how contemporary intensive methods are not sustainable. Solomon advocates using less resource-intensive growing methods. That's fine, but he advocates using those methods on 3000-5000 sq. ft. of land per family (his family being two people, him and his wife). That's a lot of land for two people. If every two people had that much land...well, it might not bother Michele Owens who prefers the sight of a tidy New England farm to Yosemite and Big Sur.

That's fine for her, but it's not going to work for me.

If we really are entering a time of unprecedented scarcity, some sacrifices will clearly have to be made, whether it be land or genetic diversity, or both--and/or other assets. Are you prepared to make sacrifices? It's hard to think about sacrifice in the Year of More (a nod to Lisa). But if it had to be, I could let go of Cobaea scandens.

Hell, I could be growing grapes.


Gardener of La Mancha said...

I mostly garden with native volunteers, so I'm not losing sleep there. But there are the cultivars here and there and I do propagate cuttings because it's fun and cheap. I'm a real novice when it comes to seeds, but I'm working on some lilies and Clintonia right now. I agree that seeds are the best way to go.

Have you read Enduring Seeds by Gary Paul Nabhan? It won't answer your questions, but it's more food for thought.

Brent said...

Engaging as usual. I touch on a similar theme with respect to California poppies in my blog this weekend. I guess I'm in the camp that would like to use local seed - mostly in an effort to capitalize on local genetic variations that suit the growing conditions.

The Forest Service certainly believes likewise, since it carefully catalogs collected pine nuts (seed?) with respect to altitude of origin. Apparently 1000' one way or the other makes a huge difference in viability.

I believe (without any evidence) that oaks are similar and so when propagating I try to keep seed origins local.

That philosophy doesn't apply to food crops, obviously.


"Seven thousand varieties sounds like a lot of apples. Should I believe it? Were those apples really all that different from each other?"

In 1900 I'd bet that regionalism was so much stronger that the same apple could have many different common names. Even today, we have the "red delicious" apples sold in the supermarkets (and which are anything but) and the "red delicious" apples sold at my local farmers' market which both look and taste dis-similar (thank goodness). The apocryphal story is that the supermarket version's a sport of the original, but that it kept the name. In 1900 I'd bet the situation was even more confused.

I've read elsewhere that even today the English talk of finding and domesticating wild apple trees - each with its own unique qualities. I'd bet loss of apples is not a good indicator of loss of genetic diversity given what seems a propensity for wild variation and hybridization.

Frances, said...

You must be in a hunker down mood again, but not without a good reason. What about people who live in apartments and high rises, even those balconies aren't going to have enough space to put much food on the table. Maybe you should be growing grapes!;->

chuck b. said...

The thing is, isolated populations become inbred and decline. It's nice that there are all these special pockets of rare life. At least it sounds nice. But micro-adaptation assumes no changes in the environment. What happens when the environment changes, or a new pest moves in? All that precious genetic material is at greater risk than ever before. So it goes.

It's a fundamental idea of biology that organisms with genetic material selected from more than one environment it's going to have a better chance of surviving in a dynamic system.

I guess oaks are in some way a counterpoint to my argument. Oaks are highly variable even within a species. Yet, many are suffering terribly and we may yet lose them. Or maybe that's scare-mongering. I don't know.

Back to the matter of forms, there's a huge bridge between an organisms genetic material, and the expression of that material we actually see. Unless someone has molecular analysis showing that plants of varied forms are different at the genetic level, I am not inclined to believe that they are. Environmental factors are huge for the way a plant looks and acts in the ecosystem.

chuck b. said...


"more than one environment ARE going to have a better chance"

Anonymous said...

Ever heard of the Dervaes family in Pasadena? They converted their suburban lot into a food forest. I stumbled across their website www.pathtofreedom.com when I was researching permaculture. They are a little over the top, but it's cool to see what's possible in a fifth of an acre (goats!). It's particularly fun to see the "before" pictures of their house in 1985 (typical house with a lawn in the front yard) vs. the pictures of it now.

Brent said...

Apologies if this is a duplicate post

isolated populations become inbred and decline. It's nice that there are all these special pockets of rare life. At least it sounds nice. But micro-adaptation assumes no changes in the environment.

I asked about that very question with respect to isolated vernal pools in a local preserve. The conservationist's answer was that the pools had historically been connected, but that for reasons of mosquito abatement they were now left unconnected and isolated. The solution was to arrange human-assisted exchange of genetic material between pools. The claim was that this happened on a semi-regular basis.

So for isolated and small populations it seems that the consensus of those that make these sorts of decisions is that there is no choice but to introduce new genetic material.

By way of contrast, consider the relatively vast Los Padres National Forest. I believe that introduction of fresh genetic material is frowned upon there because it is considered to have sufficient diversity to adapt to changes.

I wonder where the dividing line is between large and sustainable and small and vulnerable.

One might suggest that that the example of Dutch Elm disease, among others, shows that there is not a sufficiently large population that can ever overcome every threat. On the other hand, the evolutionary and reproductive processes that would allow our Elms to naturally rebound from that catastrophe are slow. Wikipedia states that Elms all but disappeared from Europe 6000 years ago, so if we'd have to be willing to wait several thousand years for Nature's solution. Fortunately, we're willing to garden our wilderness in cases of extremity.

chuck b. said...

Brent--that's really interesting about hand-pollinating vernal pool flowers! I'm trying to grow a vernal pool species in my garden this year, Centaureum muehlenbergii. Still waiting for germination.

Kirsten--yeah, there was a big discussion about them on Garden Rant a year ago or so. I'd love to do a drive-by.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Very thought provoking post. Most of the native plants I grow are from local sources - that said, however, I must point out that "local" encompasses a wide area of Northern Illinois, not just seeds & plants from my little corner of it. In this way, the local genotype is preserved, yet the wider area allows for some genetic diversity. This seems to be a good compromise. And about those apple trees - they were probably like all those Hostas that only an expert can tell apart.

lisa said...

Oh Chuck, I'm so gawd-awful behind in my blog reading, I need MORE time! :) I agree with the statements made in the J.L. Hudson catalog-all this talk about "invasives" is more hooey than anything, and I say diverify MORE! Plant MORE seeds! Have MORE fun! Blog MORE! And for cryin' out loud-LESS "expert" recommendation and speculation...dammit! ;-)