Farewell To Orange Petunias?

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GMO In The Garden

Petunias are among the most popular of garden plants and no wonder. Prolific, long blooming and increasingly easy to please, these tropical belles are among the most reliable of basket fillers. In my young days, petunias came in just a handful of tints, mostly in the purple-to-pink range, and their blossoms were fairly small. Today’s petunias are powerhouse plants, robust and vigorous enough to make traffic stopping displays without much effort.

Cousin to tobacco, tomatoes and the lowly potato, petunias were first introduced from South America to Western horticulture in Elizabethan times. The first examples were fragrant but unremarkable, with little white blossoms on straggly stems. By the mid 1800s, John Tweedie, plant hunter and early hybridizer extraordinaire, brought a purple flowered species to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Within a few decades, Japanese breeders had stabilized the gene for double blossoms, and the race for bigger, better blooms was on. By the 1930s, American and Japanese breeders were leading the way to today’s showboat plants.

Bringing On The Rainbow

Along that way, some folks were feeling frustrated by the limited petunia color range. Not satisfied with the shades of pink and purple, true red Comanche was introduced in 1953 and pale yellow Summer Sun in 1977 (I remember being so excited by this one, yet frustrated as it was rather weak). Development picked up speed; Ball Seeds brought out the Madness floribundas in 1983; the first Wave petunias appeared in 1995; millifloras in 1996. Ruffled, double and triple blooms, petals with varicolored throats, edges, and petal markings, all in amazing profusion. More recently, shades of orange, coral, and peach appeared, making petunias even more dazzling than ever. But.

Though the petunia family is extremely tweak-able, those marvelous new colors are not natural expressions of the petunia genome. Instead, they were evolved using genetic engineering that involved introducing a corn gene to the mix. Is that so terrible? Certainly this is not an edible crop and no possible harm to humans is involved. Right? As annuals, petunias are not around very long and their seed is killed by winter cold. Right? However, the first bans have begun as Evira, Finland’s Food Safety Authority, has ordered that, because genetically engineered petunias are not permitted under EU law,  all orange petunia plants and seeds must be pulled from the market and destroyed. In England, a British watchdog campaign, GM Freeze, is questioning the assumed safety of these petunias, reminding us that in the past, GE modifications have harmed butterflies and other insects when corn genes were manipulated to include Bacillum thuringiensis in a effort to destroy corn borers, accidentally destroying Monarch butterflies as well. Since corn genes are involved, is it possible that the Bt insert could be as well? (I have no idea, of course.)

What’s Next?

As this news ripples through the horticulture industry, a number of companies are considering dropping the orange petunias. Personally I am sad to lose such gorgeous flowers in a favorite color range, yet I admit to being adamantly opposed to a lot of genetic engineering, especially when food crops are involved. We humans love to think that things that provide something we want must be beneficial and we can be very slow to accept or even look for fatal flaws in them. New and not-so-new information about the dangers and drawbacks of GE crops keeps surfacing despite active suppression by powerful industry interests. And what makes sense about inserting genes for glyphosate resistance into plants so more human (and critter) DNA disrupters can be sprayed all over the world?

It’s a fascinating situation because it forces me to take a new look at the bigger picture. I find myself wondering about making “harmless” exceptions, while being fully aware that the exceptions already being made are not in the best interest of the planet and are far from harmless. Thin edge of the lefty liberal wedge? And more is in store; back in 2015, a pair of plant molecular biologists put out a crowd sourced plea for funding to help them create a color-changing petunia that could be manipulated by gardeners; spray an alcohol-sensitive flower with beer and it will change from white to red. Though their campaign failed, the intention was to capture the granny market of older gardeners and help create a positive attitude toward genetic engineering in general by way of this popular flower.

Getting To Know You…

In a 2015 interview for Popular Science, Keira Haven, the CEO of Revolution Bioengineering (responsible for the color shifting petunia plan), said, “When people talk about GMOs, a lot of things get conflated with the agricultural practices, the large corporate nature of the science—that sort of thing. We’re two independent scientists and we’re definitely not going to be mono-cropping petunias.” Why choose petunias? “It’s a place outside of the traditional context where people can interact with the technology and hopefully find some wonder and delight,” according to Haven.

In 2013, a project involving a GE glow in the dark plant touted as a light source not dependent on electricity raised almost half a million dollars through its Kickstarter campaign. However, so far, no such plant has materialized, because GE manipulation isn’t easy. Even if a “product” emerges, it still has to pass regulatory standards (unless the current administration succeeds in removing them completely). Though while Kickstarter no longer allows GE plants to be project rewards, the USDA indicated that such plants wouldn’t require regulation since there was no proof that they would harm other plants (same argument that got the GE Arctic apples deregulated).

GE Not Needed

Given the petunia’s extremely adaptable genes, splendid plants will continue to appear even without benefit (or not) of GE interference.  For instance, the stunning Petunia Headliner Night Sky captured the 2016 Greenhouse Grower’s Medal of Excellence Award for Readers’ Choice with its midnight blue petals stippled with streaks of white, for all the world like a swirl of stars and galaxies. A sister variety, Pink Sky, boasts vivid lipstick pink with similar white markings.  Both are German Westhoff introductions, soon to be followed by others in their Constellation series,starting with Virgo (deep rich plum with splashes of galactic white) and Aries (rosy magenta purple with starry flecks of white).

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3 Responses to Farewell To Orange Petunias?

  1. Lukas J. Kambic says:

    The maize gene that the GE petunias posses encodes a pigment-related enzyme called dihydroflavonol-4-reductase. This gene (and the enzyme it produces) is naturally present in all plants: the effect of transferring the maize gene was merely to increase production of the enzyme in the flowers.

    This enzyme has nothing whatsoever to do with with the insecticidal Bt protein gene that was originally found in a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) and used to create insect-resistant GE maize. I would argue that GE plant varieties should be judged on a case-by-case, trait-by-trait basis. There is simply no reason to believe that these flowers pose any more risk to the environment than any other new variety. I find the tactics of groups like GM Freeze to be extremely dishonest and manipulative.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I have to agree with you; the gene splicing was apparently done in all innocence long before the Bt gene was inserted into corn.

    • James says:

      If Monsanto allowed food packaging to state whether or not a product is GMO instead of trying to block all attempts at transparency, then perhaps people wouldn’t be quite so alarmed at every mention of GMO. But Monsanto with their immoral practices of suppressing information and also producing and promoting the use the environmentally poisonous product Round-up around the world, especially in the US., poisoning our fields and groundwater, not to mention our bodies, has systematically and increasingly been angering and alarming the world community. So now many of us want Nothing to do with ANY kind of genetic engineering until we find out more about the long-term dangers! And that is coming from a career plant grower who will potentially lose income this year because these ‘orange gene’ plants are no longer available for me to grow and sell. BUT we must be ethical and all call a halt to this profiteering by Monsanto and other unethical companies because they only want to think of their profits AHEAD OF the environment and our bodies and our children’s health. NO more Round-up! NO more GMOs!

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