Hybridizing

A Great Hybridizer… in My Dreams Only

I’m not, I must confess, a great hybridizer. And I’m nothing like Tony Huber, the famous hybridizer from Quebec, to whom we owe many perennials such as Dianthus ‘Frosty Fire’ and even the intergenetic species Iris versata. Nor do I have anything to do with Georg Arends, the German who almost single-handedly developed astilbe as we know it today. Still less Félicitas Svejda, who was the driving force behind the Explorateur roses (‘John Cabot’, that rings a bell). The list of “Hodgsonii” hybrids is very short… and most of them have disappeared into the mist.

Not that I don’t find the idea fascinating, on the contrary. That you could take the pollen from the stamens of one plant and deposit it on the stigma of another, and obtain a third plant totally different from the first two, what an exciting prospect! I’m rather less enthusiastic about the follow-up.

Dianthus ‘Frosty Fire’. Photo: PerennialRessources.

H for Hybridizer

I remember very well the first time I saw how to hybridize. It was in one of those illustrated encyclopedias sold one volume at a time in grocery stores. It was all the rage in the 1960s! For only $1.99 a month (and the first volume was, of course, free), working-class parents were assured that they could obtain all the knowledge in the world for their children, and even guarantee that they could go to university (the great dream of any parent who felt guilty about not having had a great education themselves).

My mother knew that I was an inveterate reader, who would read anything, so she decided to educate me through this colorful encyclopedia. Fittingly, I eagerly read each volume from cover to cover. I couldn’t wait for the next one. Then came volume H. It explained, among other things, how to make rose hybrids by emasculating a flower to prevent it from accidentally crossing with its neighbor, by covering it with a bag to prevent a bee from bringing pollen from elsewhere, by bringing pollen from another rose yourself on a brush, and so on. What a fascinating idea!

Rosa ‘John Cabot’. Photo: Nadiatalent.

The Petunia Adventure

All fire and brimstone, seeing myself, at the age of 10, as the world’s greatest hybridizer, I jumped at the chance to cross… two petunias. First of all, there was no way I was going to cross paths with two rose bushes. Not only was I afraid of them because of their nasty thorns, but did you see how many stamens would have had to be removed during emasculation? The petunia, however, is a very simple flower, big enough for unskilful little hands and with only two stamens. A piece of cake!

I chose as my subjects the only two petunias in my father’s flowerbed: one white and one red. For a whole week, I carried pollen from left to right and right to left like a real bee. Soon the border was full of little brown bags, which the encyclopedia suggested should be placed on fertilized flowers to prevent unwanted secondary pollination.

All summer long, I waited impatiently for the fruit of my labors… and I was satisfied. Dozens of ripe capsules each filled with golden seeds appeared. How I looked forward to winter! I knew I’d have to sow them in February to get flowers in early summer.

Petunia “Wave Rose”. Photo: James St. John.

Pink Petunias

However, between September and February, my mind must have been diverted by other tasks, because I completely forgot to do my seedlings (I told you I lacked follow-through!). It wasn’t until May, with the arrival of volume P (as in petunia), that I remembered with horror the precious sachets and their golden contents.

So I hastily sowed my petunias directly on the spot. Germination was good, even too good. What to do with the hundreds of seedlings that sprouted, all packed together? One of these seedlings was perhaps the rare pearl, the one that would have a bright yellow flower (why I thought that a cross between a red petunia and a white one would give yellow flowers, I don’t know, but I had read in volume P that yellow petunias didn’t exist, so that’s what I wanted to create).

So I let them all grow… a mistake I now recognize, as the excessive density harmed them. Flowering was a long time coming. July, nothing, August, nothing… but finally, in September, the first pink flowers showed their noses. Then more pink flowers. And, thanks to an unusually late frost, more pink flowers. Yes, I’d imagined that I’d have an incredible variety of colors, including, of course, a few plants so original that I was sure to win all the competitions, but all I had were dozens of plants, all resolutely identical. Petunias with single pink flowers were all over the market! What a disappointment! That was the end of my petunia experiments (it was someone else who created the first yellow petunia, several years later).

Hybrids… but Not Quite Perfected

From time to time, I get the urge to hybridize. I’ve already crossed African violets, gloxinias and miniature sinningias. Believe it or not, there’s even a small dwarf gloxinia with silver-veined leaves and tubular purple flowers, called ‘Quebec’, which was offered commercially, on a very limited scale, in the United States!

hybridation, hybrideur
Hosta Shadowland ‘Diamond Lake’. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners. Find out more about hybridization in this interview with perennial hybridizer Hans Hansen.

In fact, I admit it now, my hybrids weren’t really up to scratch. As always, I had been inconsistent in my work. I would have had to take my first-generation hybrids and cross-breed with the best to refine their features… which I never did. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m… too laidback to be a good hybridizer. You should have expected it!


Larry Hodgson a publié des milliers d’articles et 65 livres au cours de sa carrière, en français et en anglais. Son fils, Mathieu, s’est donné pour mission de rendre les écrits de son père accessibles au public. Ce texte a été publié à l’origine dans la revue Fleurs, plantes et jardins en octobre 1999.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “A Great Hybridizer… in My Dreams Only

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  3. The encyclopedia recommended placing small brown paper bags over fertilized flowers to avoid subsequent pollination, and soon the border was dotted with them.

  4. Wish to see much more like this. Thanks for sharing your information musicfa

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