Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
January, 2004
Regional Report

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I'm careful now to plant only 'Whitespire Senior' birches to assure borer resistance.

What's in a Name?

What's in a name? Plenty! I recently received a call from the people who bought a home of mine five years ago. This was the first time they had called since they moved in, and they made a desperate plea for help.

It seems the Whitespire birch we planted ten years ago is succumbing to bronze birch borer. It is a focal point in the yard and shades the patio in the early afternoon, so I understand why they are frantic to save it. I selected that particular cultivar of birch for its immunity to the very problem it seems to have.

Seedlings Versus Clones
I have since found out that there is a flood of seedling-grown Whitespires on the market. In many instances, seedlings are fine plants. The drawback is that seedlings carry genetic traits from two parent plants, traits that cannot be predicted. If the seedling comes from a resistant birch pollinated by a non-resistant birch, there is no assurance that the resistant gene will be there.

The only way to absolutely assure that a plant is an exact copy of the parent plant is to reproduce it by cuttings or clones. In this case, the resistant Whitespire birch parent is in an arboretum in Madison, Wisconsin, and only clones taken from that plant or its clonal progeny will exhibit the exact same traits.

Legally, only clones from that birch should be labeled Whitespire, since that name is trademarked. But seedlings are obviously being sold under the name Whitespire, and I bought one of them, not knowing any better. Now as a mature tree, it's showing signs of bronze birch borer damage. The industry has since taken steps to assure that the public knows what it is getting by labeling true clones of the original Whitespire, 'Whitespire Senior'.

It's heartbreaking to know that it took ten years to find out that the tree is not resistant, and that the tree may be lost. The owners must now begin annual spraying with a fairly toxic insecticide to assure that the borers don't kill it.

Surprise Squash
I had another incident with a mislabeled plant in the vegetable garden last summer. I planted a summer squash that settled in happily and took over a considerable part of the garden. I was delighted when it began to produce tons of little squashes, so I let it have its way.

When it came time to harvest summer squash, these were inedible. The rinds were hard enough to be some type of winter squash, so I left it growing. At the end of the season, the fruit couldn't even be cut with a knife so I tossed them out.

Squash easily cross-pollinate with each other and you never know exactly what kind of squash you will end up with if you save seeds. Obviously, my squash seeds were the product of either carelessness during pollination, or an outright mistake during production. Fortunately, all I lost was the space taken up by the squash that I could have used for other crops.

What this has emphasized to me is that it is really important to do the research to know what you want, and also to know who you are buying from. This will not always work out perfectly since mistakes certainly happen. I bought both my birch and my squash from what I thought were reliable sources. But at the very least, you have some recourse if you get the wrong plant.

On the other hand, sometimes you might get lucky and the "wrong" plant will end up being something new and even better than you expected!

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