Last update — December 8, 2016
What type of organization is the plant sync and what does Steadfast Plants, LLC have to do with it?
The plant sync is an umbrella organization that promotes actions to combat climate change in the realm of home gardening. We have considered options to organize as a non-profit or as a business. Because the facilities and activities of the plant sync are currently inseparable from our plant breeding business (Heuchera and related genera), we have chosen the route of operating as a business, at least for now. So, the plant sync is an organization with several facets centered around climate change and home gardening. One of these facets is our breeding company, Steadfast Plants, LLC. In brief, the plant sync is currently a climate change action organization doing business as Steadfast Plants, LLC.
So what is Steadfast Plants, LLC?
Steadfast Plants, LLC was founded in 2010 and develops new varieties of Heuchera sp. and related genera for commercial markets. As of 2016, the company has developed a few named varieties that are kept as “pets,” but currently has no varieties in the commercial trade. Approximately 10 potential varieties are currently being trialed by nurseries and plant branding companies.
The original choice of Heuchera as a focus of our breeding efforts was serendipitous (fateful?). The founder and sole employee of Steadfast Plants, LLC, Matthew Bailey, has a Ph.D. in plant genetics/breeding and experience in soybean biotechnology. The vagaries of corporate mergers shuffled him into an administrative job in 2000. Not to be thwarted by such a fate, he started dabbling with hobbyist breeding of Heucheras in his Central Iowa backyard in 2001 — just because they were there.
Since that time it has become clear that the choice of Heuchera has advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, the genus has about 50 species that occur in a wide range of habitats in North America. There is remarkable genetic diversity for characteristics that are important for the ornamental trade. Flowers occur in multiple colors, sizes, and seasons. Foliage comes in a vast array of patterns, colors, and forms. The permutations of traits available for producing novel varieties for the commercial market provide endless opportunities. On the downside, Heuchera can be a finicky performer in the home garden. Many varieties have been released which look spectacular in a pot at the point of sale but do not have vigor or durability in a broad range of landscape settings. This has jaded some new plant enthusiasts. Mostly because of new and dramatic foliage colors, there are now dozens of individuals and organizations breeding Heuchera around the world. This has led to a flood of new varieties on the market, many of which have not been well-tested for performance or are barely distinguishable from previous varieties. The challenge is to differentiate in a crowded market.
What is the breeding focus of Steadfast Plants, LLC?
The main breeding focus of Steadfast Plants, LLC is to incorporate the famous showy traits of Heuchera into varieties that are more vigorous and durable in garden settings. This focus is a formidable breeding and marketing challenge. Many perennial plants are bought on impulse based on a dramatic display at the point of sale. Actual performance in the garden is often assumed; or not considered; or failure is later chalked up to lack of a “green thumb.” Vigor and durability are inherently time-consuming traits to breed and evaluate. Consider, for instance, what would be required to demonstrate the genetic potential for landscape durability of a new plant for 10 years. At a minimum this would require 10 years of trialing. To be broadly applicable, it would require 10 years of trialing in all of the environments in which the new plant is to be marketed. To put it bluntly, the realities of the market suggest that this “ain’t gonna happen” very often for new perennial plant introductions.
So what is the next best thing?
The approach of Steadfast Plants, LLC is based on 15+ years of trialing Heucheras in Central Iowa, and using H. villosa as the gold standard for vigor and durability. Importantly, we have learned that not all H. villosa selections are created equal. Fifteen years ago we began making selections from our own wild-collected (Tennessee and Arkansas) H. villosa seedlings to collect the most durable and vigorous individuals from within this most vigorous and durable species. The best seedlings and hybrids among them have persisted for 15+ years in Iowa with little care, while dozens of varieties (including many claiming to have a H. villosa pedigree) from the commercial trade have come and gone in the same conditions. These seedlings form the foundation genetics for our varieties. We have also incorporated genetics from species selections of H. americana and H. richardsonii into our breeding lines as different sources of vigor and durability. Our goal is to introduce varieties that have a substantial portion of these unique genetics for vigor and durability from both the male and female parents. Many marketed varieties claim to be Heuchera villosa, or have been bred with H. villosa genetics, but there is no accounting for the percentage of H. villosa germplasm in the variety or what H. villosa accessions were used. In reality, the use of H. villosa or other sources of vigor and durability only enhances the opportunity of achieving vigor and durability in the hybrid. It is not a guarantee. Likewise, in our breeding program we cannot guarantee that any particular variety will be durable long-term in a particular environment. All we can claim is that we use unique parents that have been specifically tested long-term for durability in Iowa, and we strive to incorporate these genetics into both the male and female parent prior to making a cross for the commercial trade. Our approach may not be unique, but that is what we strive to do. We also dabble a bit in other trait niches and with other genera. [Note to competitors: We are actually working with all Heuchera species and all related genera on all possible trait permutations with every breeding technique ever invented, so if you want to scoop us you will need to breed, mutate, engineer for all permutations of everything. Wink.]
How are the activities of Steadfast Plants, LLC consistent with climate change action and the plant sync?
In one sense Steadfast Plants, LLC is contrary to climate action. One of the plant sync’s programs, Open Source Plants, requires the local sharing of unpatented plants in order to reduce the fossil fuel emissions created by the global plant industry. In contrast, varieties developed by Steadfast Plants, LLC for the trade must be patented to be commercially viable and must be marketed widely (perhaps even globally). The route to final sale requires large-scale industrial processes with their attendant greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture, transport, and maintenance of product.
On the other hand we are striving in several ways to make Steadfast Plants, LLC an exemplary company — dedicated to incorporating climate change action as a foundational principle. First, our breeding goals of vigor and durability may prevent the constant turnover and commerce in replacement plants (although planned obsolescence is not necessarily a bad business plan). Second, it is our hope that Steadfast Plants, LLC will become profitable enough to sustain the plant sync. Third, programs such as Lighting the SeedsTM, and the fact that we operate out of our residence, reduces the carbon footprint of our operations. Fourth, we have no ability or intention to replace the commercial trade and the global commerce in ornamental plants through Open Source Plants. We hope that a recognition and use of programs like Open Source Plants will signal to the industry that garden consumers care about climate change and the carbon footprint of the industry. In this way, consumers will demand that the industry reduce its carbon footprint. Finally, we are thinking about and experimenting with novel approaches to market new, worthwhile, niche varieties that have local appeal but are not necessarily suitable for global commerce, industrial production, and the commercial trade.