No One Likes A Sucker

Citrus have been bred for centuries.

Citrus trees that are grown from seed take a few years to mature enough to produce fruit. As they mature, the juvenile stems are outfitted with thorns that are even nastier than thorns on adult growth! Because most citrus has been extensively bred, seed grown trees are very likely to exhibit genetic variations. This is why citrus trees are cloned from stems of stock trees.

Cloned trees are genetically identical to their parents, so will always produce the same fruit. They are cloned from adult growth, so do not need time to mature from juvenile seedlings. They can therefore bloom and produce fruit as soon as their roots are ready. Also, their thorns are less dangerous.

Cloning citrus is not as simple as rooting them from cuttings though. With few exceptions, citrus trees are grafted onto genetically different rootstock. Most citrus trees in home gardens are grafted onto dwarfing rootstock that limits the size of the trees when mature. Orchard trees are grafted onto rootstock that allows them to get significantly larger.

The graft union, where the upper part of a grafted tree is attached to the rootstock, is typically visible just above the ground. The base of the trunk below the graft union is typically a bit more stout than the relatively lean section of trunk above the graft. Trunks of old trees are often more furrowed below the graft union than above it.

Sometimes, the rootstock tries to do more than provide roots. It can produce stems from below the graft union, known as ‘suckers’ that can potentially compete with the grafted portion of the tree above. Unfortunately, understock grows more aggressively than most types of citrus, so can overwhelm and shade out the desirable parts of an otherwise healthy citrus tree.

The most common understock for citrus produces suckers that are outfitted with unusually big and wicked thorns that are not to be messed with! If fruit develops, it seems to be humongous and disfigured lemons that lack flavor. Before they overtake good citrus trees, suckers should be pruned neatly away as they develop, without leaving any stubble to regenerate more sucker.

Six on Saturday: Souvenirs


My first rhubarb was given to my by my paternal-paternal great grandfather before I was in kindergarten. My Iris pallida also goes back four generations. I got one of my two favorite zonal geraniums from a compost pile in Montara, and snuck it back on the train when I was in the seventh grade. Some of the plants I grow have been with me for a remarkably long time.

Well, I did not get pictures of my rhubarb, Iris pallida or zonal geranium for today. Instead, these are five plants with whom I became acquainted more recently, and my first yucca whom I met three decades ago. They all have their respective stories that are more interesting than what I mentioned here. None are directly from nurseries, although #2 and #4 are from cultivars.

I sort of suspect that these plants and others of such significance to me will be with me for a very long time. I know that blue gum is nearly impossible to tame, and that windmill palm can’t be pruned down like the others. I will not force them to comply. The others can give me more cuttings to replace themselves indefinitely. The place names designate where I acquired them.

1. Holmby Hills ~ Los Angeles – Yucca elephantipes – This was my very first Yucca. My colleague, Brent Green, removed it from a project he was working on back in about 1988. It lived as a houseplant next to my desk for many years, and produced a few pups.P91095

2. Mid City ~ Los Angeles – Brugmansia suaveolens – Brent got me cuttings for this angels’ trumpet from another of his landscapes a few years ago because I really wanted a single white to add to the four more complicated cultivars that I already accumulated.P91095+

3. Reno ~ Nevada – Salix laevigata – I know that there is nothing special about the all too common red willow. I like this one anyway, because it grew from a broken twig I happened to grab on the Truckee Riverwalk through Reno. I should be more discriminating.P91095++

4. Murphys – Ficus carica – A few of these little fig trees were grown from pruning scraps. A friend wanted copies of the original tree before selling the home where the tree lived. We do not now what cultivar it is, but we sort of suspect it is the common ‘Mission’.P91095+++

5. Santa Cruz – Eucalyptus globulus – While waiting for a friend who needed a ride, and pacing outside, I started plucking a few tiny weeds from planter. One of the weeds happened to be a tiny blue gum seedling. Against my better judgment, I did not discard it.P91095++++

6. West San Jose – Trachycarpus fortunei – An old friend’s mother grew flowery annuals and perennials in pots on the porch. This windmill palm grew from seed in one of the pots, and was happy there for a few years, but eventually got too big. It lives here now.P91095+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Citrus And Avocado From Seed

71227Is it possible to grow citrus from seed? The quick and simple answer to that question is, “Yes.” After all, many cultivars of citrus were originally bred from other cultivars, and then grown from seed. But of course, this an overly simplified answer to an unrealistically simple question about a surprisingly complicated process. Perhaps a better question is “Should citrus be grown from seed?”.

Almost all citrus are grafted for a variety of reasons. Those that are not grafted are grown from cuttings only because they do not need whatever advantages understock (or rootstock) provides for their counterparts. Either way, they are all cloned by some form of vegetative propagation. This ensures that they are all genetically identical to their parents, without potential for genetic variation.

Citrus have been bred and developed so extensively that most types are very genetically variable. Those that are the most variable tend to produce fewer seeds, and might even be classified as seedless. Those with more seeds are probably more genetically stable. Nonetheless, it is impossible to predict if seed grown citrus will resemble their parents, or be something totally different.

Furthermore, citrus are cloned from ‘adult’ growth that is ready to bloom and develop fruit. Those grown from seed start out with vegetative ‘juvenile’ growth that will not bloom. Juvenile growth is typically more vigorous and thornier than adult growth, and possibly wickedly thorny! Some types of citrus outgrow their juvenile phase quite readily, while others may take several years to do so.

Avocado trees grown from seed exhibit some of the same difficulties. Although they lack thorns, they do grow very vigorously and very tall for quite a few years before they bloom. By the time they develop fruit, the fruit could be too high to reach, and quite different from the original.

Just because citrus and avocados can be grown from seed does not mean that they should be. However, different is not necessarily bad. Many seed grown avocado trees get pruned into

Horridculture – Mutants

P80704Mutants are the source of many of our favorite cultivars of otherwise simpler specie. Many cultivars of plants with compact, pendulous or fastigiate (strictly vertical) growth, or variegated, bronzed, golden or otherwise abnormally colored foliage, were derived from ‘sports’, which are mutant stems that appear on otherwise normal plants. Thornless blackberries were sports of thorny cultivars. Fruitless mulberry is a sport of white mulberry. There is no shortage of mutants.

By nature, mutants are genetically unstable. A few can easily mutate back to their original and more genetically stable characteristics. Variegated plants are notorious for developing simple green unvariegated foliage. Because it has more chlorophyll, the unvariegated foliage grows faster, and has the potential to eventually overwhelm and replace the variegated foliage. That is why green sports should get pruned out of variegated plants.

‘President Roosevelt’ is the most popular of the few variegated rhododendrons. In nursery production, it gets pruned somewhat regularly to remove green sports. Variegated specimens are rare in landscapes because almost all revert to unvariegated foliage within only a few years.

‘Yellow Wave’ is a cultivar of New Zealand flax with pendulous yellow striped foliage. It can be seen in front of the upright greener foliage in the background. These are not two separate plants stuck together. The more vigorous green foliage is a reverting sport that should have been removed by the ‘gardener’ who is supposed to be ‘maintaining’ this landscape. The green sport is now so developed that it can not be removed without damaging the rest of the ‘Yellow Wave’ growth. It will undoubtedly be left to overwhelm and replace it. Fortunately, the upright green foliage is about as appealing as the ‘Yellow Wave’, so no one will notice the inadequacy of the maintenance. No one ever does.

Cultivars Are The Real Cloned Mutants

80516thumbIt is not science fiction. It involves neither ninjas nor turtles. Cultivars really are mutant plants that can only be propagated by cloning. The word ‘cultivar’ is a portmanteau (two words combined into a single word) of ‘cultivated’ and ‘variety’. Unlike other varieties of plants that can be perpetuated by seed, cultivars must be cultivated by unnatural techniques to maintain their genetic distinction.

For example, ‘Alamo Fire’ is a variety of Texas bluebonnets with maroon flowers. The original seed were collected from a few naturally occurring variants with maroon flowers, and grown into more plants with maroon flowers, which provided more seed. No seed was collected from those that bloomed blue. By repeating this process of selection a few times, the variety was developed.

The variety ‘Alamo Fire’ is now sufficiently genetically stable to perpetuate itself, which means that subsequent generations will also bloom with maroon flowers. However, a few blue flowers might bloom in any generation; and unless they are weeded out before producing seed, they will eventually dominate until the entire colony reverts from maroon back to the more genetically stable blue.

‘Meyer’ lemon is an example of a cultivar. It must be propagated vegetatively by cuttings, or perhaps grafted onto understock. In other words, it must be cloned. It is a genetically unstable hybrid of a lemon and an orange, so plants grown from their seed would be very different from the parent. Many hybrids are so genetically unstable that they are sterile, and unable to produce viable seed.

Many variegated or dwarf cultivars of all sorts of plants are not hybrids, but are mutants. It is common for some arborvitaes to produce ‘sports’, which are simply mutant growth that is somehow different from the original growth. If a sport has a desirable characteristic, such as densely compact growth, variegation, or golden foliage, it can be cloned as a cultivar. Just like ‘Meyer’ lemon, a dwarf golden arborvitae is very unlikely to produce genetically similar seedlings.