Botany Gardening

When Plants Mutate

Gerbera flower showing a mutation to a secondary flower color. Photo: slowlyretarding, reddit.com

The word “mutation” often evokes images of evil, slimy creatures slithering out of nuclear waste ponds in one of those B-class science fiction or horror movies, but in fact, most mutations are simply small changes in the DNA (genetic structure) of a living being and actually have no noticeable effect on its appearance or health. Sadly, some mutations are harmful (most cancers are mutations, for example), but others can be beneficial. In fact, one way of seeing the living world around us is as the results of millions of years of good mutations giving rise to all this planet’s varied inhabitants. 

And just about everything we grow in our gardens, from vegetables and fruits to ornamental plants, came about, to begin with, by selection from spontaneous mutations in the wild, but from then on, through human intervention: people making further selections from mutations, provoked or accidental, that occurred in culture. That big, fat, juicy Beefsteak tomato didn’t arise from the tiny 1/2-inch (1.5 cm) fruit of the wild tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) by accident: it was carefully manipulated by selection until it reached its present form.

Mutations in Your Own Backyard

The observant gardener observer will occasionally find visible changes in the plants they cultivate: a flower on a double plant with single petals, spontaneous variegated foliage on a plant that was originally all green, a distinctly different color on one single flower, etc.

Among the mutations most commonly observed on plants in a garden setting are:

• Double or semi-double flowers: an increase in the number of petals or sepals. Or sometimes anthers and pistils mutate into simili-petals (petaloids), giving a double bloom.

Quite often, the contrary occurs: a plant with double or semi-double flowers will produce a flower with fewer petals, even a single flower. In that case, the mutation would be considered a reversion (see below).

Typical streptocarpus flower on left, mutated streptocarpus flower with radial symmetry on right.
Typical streptocarpus flower showing bilateral symmetry (left); mutated streptocarpus flower showing radial symmetry (right). Photo: Nzfauna, Wikimedia Commons

• Peloric flower: a mutation towards radial symmetry in a flower that normally exhibits bilateral symmetry, that is, that has two symmetrical sides—left and right—while its upper side is different from its lower side. This is essentially a reversion, a return to the ancestral form of the flower. The term peloric comes from the Greek pelôros for monster.

Tulip that is red on one side and yellow on the other.
It’s not unsual to see tulips mutate to a different color. Photo: oheycoronis, reddit.com

• Flowers of a new color: a stem suddenly produces flowers of different color from the others. Sometimes this is a reversion to an ancestral form, but often this is an entirely new color. The entire flower can be a different color or only part.

• Seedless fruits: such a mutation leads to a plant produces fruits, but ones that don’t contain viable seeds. The seeds do begin to form, but abort before they can mature. Such plants are highly prized in agriculture and include such everyday fruits as bananas, seedless grapes and Navel oranges. However, in the garden, seedless fruits are a rare mutation, often linked to polyploidy (see below).

Hosta with variegated green and cream leaves.
Hosta au feuillage panaché. Photo: nehosta.org

• Variegation: bicolor foliage, one part being normal chlorophyll-producing tissue (and therefore green), the other without chlorophyll and thus albino, which reveals the leaf’s secondary pigments, usually white, cream or yellow, but sometimes pink or other colors. Sometimes flowers also show a similar two-tone effect. Variegated plants are generally “chimeric”: that is, they have two types of cells in the same plant, growing side by side.

Albino grass seedlings with white leaves.
Albino seedlings have no chlorophyll and rarely survive very log. Photo: chicagobotanic.org

• Albinism: complete absence of chlorophyll. This is mostly seen in young seedlings (trying sowing Citrus and you should see some). Albinism is usually rapidly fatal. The pale white to cream seedling lives for a while on reserves contained in the seed, but as soon as they are depleted, it dies because it can’t perform photosynthesis and feed itself.

These albino cacti are grafted onto green cacti that supply their energy needs through the photosynthesis they themselves are unable to carry out. Photo: worldofsucculents.com

However, some albinistic plants are saved by grafting them onto a related green plant that can carry out photosynthesis in their place. The famous red ball cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovicii friedrichii ‘Rubra’, also called Hibotan) is an albino cactus (unusually, with red pigmentation rather than white) that is able to survive because it is grafted onto a green cactus that can carry out photosynthesis.

• Colored Foliage: green is the basic color of most foliage, but sometimes seedlings are produced with an unusually dark purple to reddish or chocolate foliage (called “bronze” in horticulture) or lime green to chartreuse-yellow leaves (referred to as “golden”) or a stem mutates to such a coloration.

• Fasciation: the stem or flower is abnormally flattened, often in a “cockscomb” pattern, thus growing in width rather than lengthening normally. Sometimes fasciation is a genetic mutation and can even be transmitted by seed (cockscomb celosia, Celosia argentea cristata, for example), but it can also result from a disease transmitted by an insect that causes abnormal growth, in which case it would not be considered a true mutation.

Pine tree with a large witches’ broom. Photo: threatenedconifers.rbge.org.uk

• Witches’ Broom: A dense mass of abnormally short shoots begins to develop from a single point, resulting in a structure that resembles a broom or a bird’s nest. Conifers are particularly subject to witches’ brooms.

A witches’ broom is not always a mutation, though. Sometimes it can be a symptom of a disease caused by different organisms: mites, bacteria, fungi, dwarf mistletoes, insects, phytoplasmas, viruses and others.

When it truly is a mutation, on the other hand, it is often possible to take cuttings and thus reproduce the witches’ broom which will continue to live on as a dwarf plant. The majority of the many dwarf conifers, for example, originally come from witches’ brooms.

• Polyploidy: not too visible except to those who know the plant well, because the difference is often subtle: stronger stems, thicker leaves or petals, longer-lived plant or flower, etc. The plant can go from being diploid, with two pairs of chromosomes, which is the normal condition for most plants, to triploid (3 pairs), tetraploid (4 pairs), hexaploid (6 pairs) and even further. Once such mutations, which often give extra robust plants, occur, they are often widely used in hybridizing.

Transmissible or End of Line?

Most mutations occur in somatic (non-reproductive cells) and, in animals, will therefore die with the animal that produced it. Many plants can, however, be propagated asexually, through cuttings or grafts for example, and, if so, the mutation can sometimes be propagated.

If variegated foliage appears on a shrub, for example, it might be possible to produce an entirely variegated plant, as shrubs can usually be propagated by cuttings. Mutations on annual plants, on the other hand, will likely die at the end of the growing season, as true annuals can only be propagated by seed (sexual propagation). So, if the same variegated foliage appeared on a marigold (Tagetes), an annual plant that reproduces only by seed, the mutation would die with the plant at the end of the season.

Double red rose showing no anthers, another rose opened up, showing anthers inside flower.
Most double roses still have fertile anthers and pistils, so doubleness can be transmitted through pollination … a fact commonly used in hybridizing. Photo: source known

A mutation in the reproductive cells, on the other hand, is generally transmissible … unless it is a lethal gene, of course. That’s how many of the complex flowers we grow as ornamentals were developed. Double roses (Rosa) and double columbines (Aquilegia) are usually fertile, with functional anthers and pistils, and, furthermore, the trait is a dominant one: only one gene needs to be present for the flower to be at least somewhat double. When crossed with single-flowered relatives, then this will usually give a good share of semi-double to fully double flowers in the following generation. Hybridizers can easily use genetically transmissible traits like this to develop improved plants.

But not all double flower genes can be transmitted by pollination. Double tulips (Tulipa), for example, are always sterile: their anthers and pistils have all been converted into petaloids, leaving nothing that can be used for sexual propagation. So, you simply can’t hybridize double tulips. Instead, they only come from spontaneous mutations, when a mutant seedling occurs or when a normally single tulip spontaneously mutates to a double form. Once a double tulip appears spontaneously, it can be propagated by dividing its bulbs and sold commercially … if it is stable, that is.

Reversions

And many mutations are not stable. They tend to return (mutate back) to their ancestral form. That’s why hybridizers are normally required to multiply their latest introductions over 3 generations (mother, daughter and granddaughter have to be identical) before releasing them to the market in order to prove they are true to type.

Reversion on a harlequin maple.
Reversion on a harlequin maple. Photo: leevalley.com

Despite this, many plants on the market do produce reversions (returns to the ancestral form), at least on occasion. The harlequin maple (Acer platanoides ‘Drummondii’), for example, grown for its variegated leaves, green edged with creamy white, almost always produces a branch or two with the original entirely green foliage over its very long life. 

Reversions are the most common mutations found in home gardens.

Gardeners should remove reversions, otherwise they tend to increase in size and come to dominate the plant, as they are usually more vigorous than the original plant, sometimes to the point where the desired trait (variegated foliage in the case of the harlequin maple) gradually disappears. Plants with colored foliage (bronze, golden, variegated) seem to be particularly prone to reversals. 

The popular dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) frequently produce reversions to a normal white spruce growth habit. Such reversions have to be pruned off, or the plant will lose its characteristic dwarf conical shape. Photo: Ragesoss, Wikimedi Commons

One of the most striking and common reversions are seen when a dwarf conifer, with a dense, shrublike habit, suddenly produces a normal-sized branch with normal node spacing. If the reversion is not removed, the dwarf shrub will soon turn into a full-sized tree!

Can Humans Provoke Mutations?

Most mutations are spontaneous: they happen quite by accident, but human beings have long tried to provoke them. 

We know in particular that X-rays can cause mutations. These are usually harmful mutations, but sometimes interesting traits show up. Thus, many plants now currently widely grown, including many fruits and grains, were produced by bombarding their parent plant with X-rays.

Some chemicals have similar effects. Colchicine, for example, a drug derived from the autumn crocus, Colchicum, a pretty flowering bulb, is well known for its capacity to stimulate the duplication of chromosomes (polyploidy).

However, these treatments (and others) remain largely tools for scientific experimentation. The home hybridizer tends to work with naturally occurring mutations, crossing and backcrossing them to try and bring out a superior cultivar, rather than trying to provoke new ones.


And there you go! A fairly simple explanation on mutations in our plants. Keep your eyes open: you may find a very original and possibly even valuable mutation among the plants you grow.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

4 comments on “When Plants Mutate

  1. Great article!

  2. Albino redwoods are rare. They typically grow as a seemingly distinct tree from the roots of a normal green colony. In other words, they are one of a few or several trunks that grow from the roots of a tree that was harvested. I have never seen one that grew as a branch of a green tree; but of course, I have seen only a few. One albino redwood ‘tree’ happens to live here at work. I would like to graft pieces of it onto a normal green tree, but can not figure out how to do it. I think that if it were easy, such grafted trees would be available in nurseries.

    • I suspect you’d need a solid, well-rooted rootstock to support even a modestly sized albino redwood. Pretty as it might be, it would be hard to market.

      • Albino redwoods do not get very big. Most are low and shrubby. The specimen at work barely reaches an upstairs eave, but is the tallest and straightest that I know of. They all have massive rootstocks, since they develop from the root systems of old trees that were harvested. However, I doubt that the scale of the root system is important. What is more important is that, unlike other grafted plants, it relies on the green foliage of the rootstock. Those that occur naturally are on individual trunks that emerge from roots of green trees. Even if they seem to be separate trees, they can not survive without connection to green foliage. If grafted, they could grow at the base of a green tree. The ‘rootstock’ would need to grow as a tree, like a VERY big sucker from below the graft.

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