Endangered Sri Lankan Plants Live on in New Flower

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005

By Brian Lin

If you think naming your pet is stressful, try naming an entire species of flowers.

That’s the task faced by UBC assistant professor Andrew Riseman at the Botanical Garden in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. But you won’t hear him complain, because it took him a lot more work to create the flower he now has the privilege to name and is about to commercialize.

“For the common name, I’m thinking of using something that has to do with the flower’s vibrant colour, maybe a play on words from the blues genre,” says Riseman. “However, I’d also like a name that honours Sri Lanka, where the five species of exacum used to create the new flower originated.”

Riseman began studying Exacum affine — or Persian violet, a common ornamental plant available in most grocery stores — as an undergraduate student at Pennsylvania State University.

Since then, he has crossed five endangered wild species from the gentian family and cultivated 13 generations of interspecific hybrids to arrive at a commercially viable plant — something Japanese and Dutch researchers have not been able to accomplish in 30 years.

“It’s still very much a work in progress,” says Riseman, who came to UBC five years ago with the germplasm, or genetic information, he had worked on throughout his Master’s and PhD studies. “But we feel the crop is now strong enough to introduce to growers and the public.”

Each of the six genotypes of the exacum Riseman developed yields large blue flowers with bright yellow anthers, and is suitable for either the greenhouse, cut flower or house plant markets.

From this point on, Riseman says, it’s up to growers to determine what precise environmental conditions maximize the plant’s growth potential. “We’re probably two to three years away from seeing them on the market.”

With plant patents pending on several advanced selections, Riseman, who is involved in commercialization for the first time, acknowledges the expertise provided by the University-Industry Liaison Office.

“They have been instrumental in identifying and protecting the intellectual property, in helping create a business model for introduction, and in developing and managing Material Transfer Agreements, which are required before sending the exacum to growers for commercial trials.”

As exciting as it is to create a whole new plant classification for the public’s enjoyment, Riseman says a better understanding of its underlying biology will be the blue blossoms’ lasting legacy to academia.

“Exacum is reported to be one of the fastest evolving group of plants,” says Riseman. “Understanding the evolution of its genome, and its interactions and synergies with other plants may prove to be very interesting to many areas of biology beyond horticulture.”