Pedigrees of the Cronin watsoniasPosted: December 31, 2014
The rediscovery of Mendel’s principles of heredity at the beginning of the 20th century inspired a surge of ornamental plant breeding by researchers, commercial nurserymen, and perhaps most importantly by individual gardeners.
John Cronin, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne from 1909 to 1923, had a personal hobby of experimenting with the improvement of garden flowers. He aimed to demonstrate the application of Mendel’s laws to flower breeding, and encourage gardeners to make their own hybrids. He worked with Dahlia and other genera, but particularly the winter-growing South African watsonias, which he recognised as “everyone’s flower” – easy to grow, attractive, a natural for southern Australian gardens.
In a previous publication I lamented that the exact pedigrees of his Watsonia cultivars were lost with the destruction of his papers after his death in 1923. But now the National Library of Australia has come to the rescue with their wonderful resource of newspaper files at Trove. Cronin was a tireless populariser and communicator, speaking at the evening meetings of horticultural societies around the suburbs of Melbourne and giving interviews to journalists.
In the spring of 1904, while employed by William Guilfoyle at the Botanic Gardens, he crossed a pink Watsonia borbonica with W. borbonica ‘Arderne’s White’. This cross may be represented by the following formula (but note that the order is arbitrary, it is not known which was the pollen parent and which the ovule parent in any of the crosses discussed here):
borbonica × Arderne’s White
He noted that pink flowers were dominant over white in the F1 generation, as has been confirmed by other researchers. In spring 1907 he selected one F1 plant with tall stature, dense branching and large flowers. He crossed this with a purple Watsonia meriana and the widely grown red Watsonia aletroides, and also backcrossed it to W. borbonica ‘Arderne’s White’ to create three lines for further breeding:
1. meriana × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)
2. aletroides × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)
3. Arderne’s White × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)
Cronin’s appointment as Principal of Burnley Horticultural College in 1908 seems to have interrupted this work, and in the following year he succeeded Guilfoyle as Director of the Botanic Gardens. By 1913 he had time to resume his watsonia experiments, and on 20 March sowed seeds from his three 1907 crosses at the Botanic Gardens nursery. Six years is not an inordinately long time to store Watsonia seeds, but there would be some loss in viability which may have unintentionally favoured some genotypes over others. Cronin’s management of the plants was another possible source of selection pressure to produce watsonias adapted to Melbourne gardens: he left the corms in the ground over summer, and gave the plants no fertiliser or watering even though 1913-14 was a drought period.
This generation produced their first flowers in October 1914; Cronin stated that these resembled the 1907 selection in size and colour, and were inbred that year. I interpret this to mean that he produced an F2 generation in each of the three lines by cross-pollinating siblings, since selfing would have produced little or no seed due to incompatibility. Thus,
1. (meriana × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)) × (meriana × (borbonica × Arderne’s White))
2. (aletroides × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)) × (aletroides × (borbonica × Arderne’s White))
3. (Arderne’s White × (borbonica × Arderne’s White)) × (Arderne’s White × (borbonica × Arderne’s White))
Large numbers of these seedlings were raised in the main nursery of the Botanic Gardens. By October 1916 Cronin saw the first flowers of the inbreds, which had a wider range of colours than their parents. Some whites showed up, as would be expected from recombination, including some with flowers of improved size and form compared to the original ‘Arderne’s White’. The watsonias commercially released in the 1920s as the Commonwealth hybrids or “Watsonia Cronini” were selections from this generation.
Line 1 would have produced the many Cronin cultivars with a mixture of characters from W. meriana and W. borbonica. These often have subtle tertiary flower colours due to genes from both species influencing anthocyanin pigment production. Floral bracts are typically well-developed and obtuse, compared to the shorter acute bracts of W. borbonica. Examples include ‘Lilac Towers’, which is the most widely grown Watsonia in Australia today and may be the same as Cronin’s ‘Sydney’, and the one illustrated below which may be his ‘Maitland’.
Line 2 would have yielded flowers with long tubes and small lobes like Watsonia aletroides. The one illustrated here was discussed in a previous post.
It’s significant that Cronin did not use a long breeding program: the cultivars released were no more than three generations away from the original genotypes that had been imported from Africa in the 19th century. As he was working with a perennial that is normally propagated vegetatively, he could stop at the F2 with its fixed heterozygosity. I have bred watsonias four generations on from these and other old cultivars, and can attest that hybrid breakdown soon appears. Some of the resulting plants had interesting extremes of flower shape or colour, many were dwarf or weak in growth, but few were gardenable.
In the spring of 1917 Cronin presented this data to the horticultural correspondent of The Leader, and was lecturing on flower hybridisation to amateur horticultural societies with his new watsonias as exhibits. The following year he gave an interview to The Argus, repeating that his new watsonias were produced by first crossing and then inbreeding on Mendelian lines.
Anon. (1917) Melbourne Botanic Gardens – New colors in flowers – The laws of Mendel. The Leader (Melbourne), Saturday 10 November 1917 pp.13-14.
Anon. (1917) Horticultural society. The Advertiser (Footscray), Saturday 15 December 1917 p.3.
Anon. (1918) Botanic Gardens Experiments. The Argus (Melbourne), no.22,553. Monday 11 November 1918 p. 6.
Cooke, D.A. (1998) Descriptions of three cultivars in Watsonia (Iridaceae) J.Adelaide Bot. Gard. 18: 95-100.
Pescott, E.E. (1926) Bulb Growing in Australia. (Whitcombe & Tombs: Melbourne).