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Meet NC State’s New Plant Breeder

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Hsuan Chen, Ph.D., joined the Horticulture Science team at North Carolina State University earlier this year to support nursery and landscape plant breeding. Ornamental plants developed by their researchers have contributed nearly $400 million in retail value to the largest crop commodity in the state, according to university statistics.

Chen’s research will help breed new cultivars of drought-tolerant, pest-resistant plants that require fewer in-puts, grow faster and perform better in the landscape. He is interested in versatile technologies, including conventional plant breeding, cytogenetics, ploidy manipulation, molecular marker–assisted selection and interspecific hybridization.

“We wanted someone who could go from traditional, old-school plant breeding to employing cutting-edge technology,” said Mark Weathington, JC Raulston Arboretum Director and Search Committee Member. “That’s what Hsuan does well: He can work on the high-tech aspects but also knows how to do the work in the field.”

As a doctoral student at Oregon State University, Chen’s research included breeding tree-form rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) hybrids that yielded more robust stems with flowers spanning up to two inches larger than usual. In another project, he discovered the molecular markers that identify which lilac cultivars will rebloom, in an attempt to lengthen their short flowering season.

Chen hopes to visit local nurseries this summer to learn what challenges they face, so he can apply his research to crucial issues in the area. In the meantime, he is busy with two ongoing research projects on redbuds and camellias.

Working alongside NC State’s Dr. Dennis Werner, a longtime redbud researcher, Chen hopes to develop his own unique combinations of traits to improve their characteristics and novel features. Ultimately, he would like to introduce desirable redbud genes to other species.

“We’ve found some interesting traits in redbuds, and if we can find the trait’s gene, eventually we can deploy gene editing on other species,” said Chen. “We won’t have to wait to discover the desired gene in every species we want to breed.”

Redbud trees are native to the area, but Chen would like to use polyploidy manipulation to breed an infertile cultivar. An infertile redbud would be easier to control and would al-low growers to sell it in regions where it is considered invasive.

Chen is also working with Dr. Tom Ranney, NC State Plant Breeder, to develop a protocol for creating polyploidy in camellias, which will increase the plant’s performance and vigor. Camellia Forest Nursery, a partner in the project, created some interspecific hybrids with yellow pigment that

Chen wants to introduce to other cultivars, but the hybrid is infertile. Once he develops the right protocol to increase the ploidy, which might rescue the fertility, he can introduce the yellow pigment to other cultivars.

Although developing better-per-forming cultivars is an important objective of plant breeding, Chen knows it can also help growers and landscapers keep up with consumer trends. Homeowners like seeing new colors in flowering plants, and they want to see them bloom multiple times a year. Introducing new ornamentals to the market helps the local industry evolve so that it can compete economically.

A side project for Chen is to uncover methods for controlling invasive plants in the state. After moving here from Oregon, where wisteria is not considered invasive, he discovered that the fast-growing plant can be destructive in this region. He plans to breed an in-fertile plant that still blooms but does not spread seed, preventing it from quickly overtaking an area.

While Chen is excited about his new role at NC State, he does not want to work without participation from the industry. He encourages growers to contact him to discuss the challenges they face and how his research can help facilitate solutions.

“I want to know what topics matter to people,” said Chen. “I want my research to have a positive impact to help the green industry.”

Appears in Spring 2021 issue of Nursery & Landscape Notes.