Growing Magazine - April, 2014

COLUMNS

Seed Research: Breeding Pedigreed Peppers

By Rebekah L. Fraser

Janika Eckert is a full-time plant breeder and former co-owner of Johnny's Selected Seeds, which is now a 100 percent employee-owned company. Eckert works with both sweet and hot peppers in addition to summer squash. Growing spoke to her recently regarding the launch of her two newest pepper varieties.

What did you want to achieve when you started breeding the Aura and Glow pepper varieties?

My goal was to breed flavorful and attractive peppers in different colors for eating either fresh or cooked. In addition to selecting for color, size and shape, I aim for peppers that are easy to grow in a wide variety of conditions and locations, that mature early, and that have a plant architecture/habit that keeps the fruits healthy.

What kind of plant architecture and habit do you mean?

The plant has good leaf cover for the maturing fruits, sets fruits in a way that makes them easy to pick, and keeps the fruits up off the ground. I look for sturdy, well-branched bushes that do not fall over [called lodging] as the season progresses. And of course I want the plants to yield well.

Did you meet all of your breeding goals?

Yes. I think these two peppers rate highly in all of the above categories.

How long did the entire process take?

It took at least seven years to fully develop each parent line and to achieve uniformity [at least 98.5 percent]. During each of those seven years, I selected the best plants to further refine important traits. Every year, in addition to refining our parent lines, we make new experimental hybrids between our best parent lines. I have been making crosses with peppers like Aura and Glow in mind for about five years.

Since I like to look at my new favorites for several years before I release them, I compared these two to many other very similar varieties. Every fall, the Johnny's plant breeding team sits down together and evaluates all of the best peppers from the field. Aura and Glow rated tops in their class for the three years prior to their release in looks, taste and adaptability.

What methods did you use?

Pedigree breeding is my main method. This involves lots of good old-fashioned work. It starts with controlled, manually executed pollination between two individuals, followed by a minimum of seven years of replanting seeds selected from the prior year's best offspring. We take descriptive notes every year as the line progresses toward completion.

What differentiates pedigree breeding?

Pedigree breeding is a form of classical plant breeding in which all of the ancestors of any individual can be traced back to the original cross from which they came. Each breeding line is assigned a pedigree number at the time of the original cross. The record-keeping involves extensive fieldwork and note-taking, and the result is an extremely reliable method of plant breeding. With pedigree breeding, the cumulative effect or synergy between both parents is enhanced with each year of breeding and selection.

I love working in the field, so pedigree breeding suits me well.

What's the lineage of these new varieties?

A well-kept company secret. One of Aura's parents is a pepper that we have been working with for almost 25 years, and the other parent we just finished refining recently. Both of Glow's parents were finished a couple of years ago.

Which parents provided which traits?

Regarding taste, earliness, plant habit and yield, each of the two parents contributed to these qualities. Careful selection each year of the best in the field helped me to refine and improve each characteristic.

As for color, both of Glow's parents were orange. On the other hand, Aura's gold color is the result of the yellow gold color of the female parent being dominant over the orange color of the male parent.

How much did you focus on increasing resistance to diseases, pests and fungi?

All of my peppers are grown outside in organic field conditions. By growing and selecting under these conditions, I select and keep the plants with the healthiest peppers. These peppers have what we call horizontal resistance: many dozens of health-related genetic traits team up to make the plants robust and disease-free. For example, an upright plant habit with well-spaced foliage can also help a plant to resist disease.

Aura and Glow were selected for plant health at every generation. Whatever resistance they have comes from the combined effects of several genes working together, which results in a pepper variety with traits that make for a robust and healthy plant.

Single-gene resistances are more commonly spoken of in the larger agricultural communities. Neither Aura nor Glow have any of the single-gene [simply inherited, vertical] resistances you may have seen advertised, such as bacterial spot [Xanthomonas] or Phytophthora resistance.

Will Aura and Glow stand up to disease/pest/fungal pressures in an organic growing operation?

Neither pepper has clearly defined or measurable resistances. However, since I selected the parent lines for their ability to grow well under all conditions, these two peppers will likely grow about as well as any peppers in an organic growing operation, provided the disease pressure is not high.

What's the best way to ripen these varieties?

Right on the plant - that is the only good way to ripen them to attain their full sweet flavor. Once ripe, what's the shelf life?

That depends on storage conditions. After picking, peppers should be cooled as soon as possible to reduce water loss. When picked ripe, they will keep, even at room temperature, for a week to 10 days. Ideal storage conditions are about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures increase water loss and shrivel. Lower temps increase chilling injury. A ripe pepper that starts out without blemishes can easily be stored at the recommended temperature for five weeks or longer.

How well will they ship?

Aura and Glow are not designed to be shipping peppers. Shipping peppers are usually picked green in order to survive long-distance travel. Our specialty peppers should be picked at their ripe color for maximum flavor. If you ship any ripe colored peppers, package them well and ship under cool conditions [ideally 45 degrees Fahrenheit] for best results.

Where do you see these varieties selling best: farmstands, farmers' markets, supermarkets, health food stores, independent grocers, ethnic grocers or wholesale to restaurants?

You have mentioned all of the places that I would recommend, though I would also add local food co-ops to the list. The audience for these peppers will be one that appreciates their great flavor, bright colors and snazzy shape. Their in-between size - not as big as a regular bell pepper, but much larger than a snack-sized pepper - is also a plus; they are suitable for just about any culinary use. This, I think, will increase their appeal to innovative chefs.

To sum up, Aura and Glow are beautiful, taste great, are easy to grow and make a great pair in combination. Put the two of them together with our longtime favorite red Lipstick pepper and you have a winning trio.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.