A mere glance at the Society's year books of the 20's and 30's gives the reader a mouthwatering and somewhat frustrating glimpse of the range of varieties then available. Not only was the choice of varieties wide, there appeared to be an equally wide range of nurseries supplying them. 'O tempora, 0 mores'!
The Society of late has been concerned with the conservation of such stocks of exhibition varieties that still exist. Why did the great range of varieties die out? Why were they allowed to? For the answers I think we need to look at the modern lists of Dahlias and Chrysanthemums. Both popular flowers, available in a large number of varieties; but very few of those cultivars are 'old'. Each year names disappear from lists as new and 'improved?' varieties take their place. There seems little room for sentiment; looking at what was grown as late as the 1970's, only a few survive, but they have been replaced! There I believe is part of the answer to our problem. As popularity declined, so commercial growers ceased to produce, a few amateurs continued to hybridize, but the rate of the new introductions did not match the rate of decline of the old. This brings us to our current role of conservators, but I believe we should go forward as Florists' Societies were formed to "....raise ever finer varieties" (Duthie 1988).
If we are to have finer varieties, then we must produce them ourselves. It is generally acknowledged amongst the growers of exhibition Violas and Pansies that commercial seed varieties do not have either the form or texture in the flower that our standards demand. However, they do have a much wider range of colour, and it is this that we should attempt to bring to the breeding of new exhibition Violas and Fancy Pansies. What to aim for? There is no longer a pink or rose exhibition Viola. The margins of our remaining Fancy Pansies are for the most part yellow or cream. A glimpse of what is possible was shown by Pat Tipping at this year's show, a seedling originating from 'Bunny Cox' with a deep blue margin around a black blotch, good circular form and a bottom petal with a straight top edge.
The mechanics of cross-fertilisation are well documented elsewhere, not least in the Society's Blue Book, so I shall not attempt to add anything here. Suffice to say that we have two choices, 'Chance', or the making of definite crosses. Heather Wilson, a member in Gloucestershire wrote to me on the subject of chance... "I rely on a very crude method of isolating anything interesting and leaving it to open pollinate. It then either selfs or crosses with its genetically identical neighbour". A little degree of control is exercised here, and Heather has been bold enough to put some of her seedlings on the show bench. I always grow on any seedlings that I find in pots or beds, hoping to be surprised; I am long on hope and short on surprise to date.
As to definite crosses, here the aim is to make a definite improvement in form, colour and perhaps habit. Last year I harvested a good crop of seed from Jessie Taylor x James Christie*. Results were disappointing. I had hoped to take the colour from James Christie*, and leave its weak bottom petal behind. However the bottom petal's tendency to fish tail appeared a dominant characteristic. I have retained 2 out of 70 seedlings to try for another year. This year, I attempted two crosses; George Rowley x Jessie Taylor for no other reason than both plants were in the right state at the time, and Helen Cochrane x Miss Brookes; in search of that pink exhibition Viola. Look for the results in next year's seedling classes.
To conclude, I quote from Slater's Amateur Florists' Guide of 1860... "Take only seed from those which are the most perfect in form and properties, and should there be a deficiency in one, endeavour to supply such defect by impregnating with one that possesses those that are wanting in the other. Remember, however careful you may be in taking your seed all will not be good, and think yourself fortunate if out of a sowing you get two or three good ones. Do not be disheartened by failure, but persevere; a florist must always have a stock of hope on hand, and great patience, and great will be his gratification when successful".
(* There is some debate as to the correct naming of this variety; it may well turn out to be Bishop's Gold, I am attempting to have this verified in Scotland, along with some other varieties. I will publish the results.)
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