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My cherimoya, shortly before it became smoothie fodder.

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March 1, 2005

Sorbus: Genus of Easy Virtue

I've been poking around for a while, looking things up here and there on the topic of intergeneric crosses. One thing you learn quickly when you start paying attention to plant breeding is that the rules you learned in high school biology about what will reproduce with what go straight out the window. Crosses between species, supposedly not possible, are pretty much the bread and butter of most breeding efforts (to be fair, the real textbook definition of species was 'reproductive isolation', which doesn't mean they can't reproduce, just that they probably won't for whatever reason...but I'm not betting your eighth grade science teacher knew or expressed the difference). That restriction sort of gets bumped up to the next level. In general, you can't make crosses between genera.

In general.

Species and genera are, of course, made by Man, not Nature, and Nature seems to have this thing about finding exceptions to the rules Man has tried to come up with. Intergeneric crosses do work, sometimes. In my yard right now, I have a little plant that looks quite a bit like a strawberry, called 'Lipstick'. Unlike strawberries, however, 'Lipstick' has bright pink flowers. Really quite attractive, though I haven't had fruit yet to attest to it's worth in that respect. It's a cross between Fragaria x ananassa, the cultivated strawberry, and Potentilla palustris, a related species for sure but not a member of the same genus.

Fragaria and Potentilla are both members of the Rosaceae, a family of plants which contains maybe a majority of the fruit crops out there (and yes, as you may have guessed, roses, too). A number of the genera out there are willing to play a little fast and loose with the rules. In addition to Potentilla, strawberries have been crossed with Duchesnea indica, the "false strawberry", and with raspberries. Luther Burbank, perhaps the greatest American fruit breeder (though not a scientist by any means) was perhaps the first to make this cross, which resulted in some rather odd plants.

Burbank was one of the great makers of wide crosses. He crossed apples with pears, apples with rose, pears with quinces, strawberries with dewberries, etc. The Russians were also big on this sort of thing. Partly because their climate is almost universally horrible (I said "almost"...yes I realize parts of it are just lovely), Eastern Bloc breeders have always seemed a little more anxious than most to make weird crosses. One genus that seemed particularly amenable to their fiddling was Sorbus, or mountain ash.

Probably one of the better known intergeneric crosses in the family is 'Shipova', a cross of mountain ash and pear from Yugoslavia. It's available commercially here and there, and is actually pretty good from what I've heard. Russian breeder Ivan Michurin created 'Ivan's Belle', a hybrid between mountain ash and hawthorn, also available here. Hybrids of Sorbus exist with Cotoneaster, Aronia, Mespilus (medlar), and Amelanchier (serviceberry), and it's tempting to wonder how many other obscure ones might work if some one tried them enough. Some of the hybrids, like Sorbaronia have been found occurring naturally!

Ultimately, though, the successes of intergeneric crossing have been few and far between, though its promise to any breeder is obvious: opening up an entire new pool of germplasm. If only it was that easy.

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At 2/20/2009 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous Guy T. Valentine said...

I know of an existing Shipova in the wild and remember one or two in the wild decades ago. My property had one shipova but I cut it down as I didn't know what it was at that time and it was poorly formed from overgrowth. The fruit, when well ripened are absolutely divine and not of anything I can explain but "pearish with hints of cinnamon and some type of fruity nectar.

At 5/28/2009 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Dia said...

I just got the Hawthorne/Mtn Ash cross (Ivan's Belle) from One Green World - will be interested in seeing how it does! I also got an purple aronia to cross fertilize the white flowering one I have (& hopefully get some fruit) . . . fun to experiment!

At 8/27/2012 10:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We planted a "Shipova" in our side yard in Pullman, WA, about 20 years ago, and it is bearing fruit for the first time this year. I believe we obtained the tree from a now-defunct nursery in N. Washington which specialized in unusual hybrids, especially of hazels/filberts (we have some of those, too). They aren't ripe yet, but we are anxiously waiting. Every year the leaves get some kind of insect/mildew problem. Nevertheless, the tree is still growing, and is now about 30' tall. --Tim Kohler

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