Designer genes

A plant breeder blends a flair for flowers with a little genetic engineering
Jim McCausland

"I design a product that just happens to be a flower," plant breeder Todd Perkins says. "I envision what I want, then I go shopping for genes. If I can't find the ones I need, I'll mutate the genes I have as a last resort. Then I put them together into a package."

If this seems like rarefied design, it is. Perkins develops new flower forms and colors for Goldsmith Seeds, a California-based company that ranks among the world's largest flower breeders. If you've ever grown annuals, chances are good that you've tried something from Goldsmith ― and Perkins.

The "package" Perkins produces can be anything from a restyled line of zinnias to a sophisticated new collection of columbines. How does he come up with them? He starts by thinking ahead; it took 13 years to develop the Magellan series of zinnias. Perkins breeds all colors, but Goldsmith only releases the ones with the most "market potential," as determined by talking to retailers and gardeners.

Looking ahead, Perkins is working on a strain of pansies that have the toughness of violas, and he's got his eye on more salvias in an improved color range.