Tissue Culture: The Science of Plant Perfection

October 17, 2002 - 10:04

Stuck on seed? For better plant uniformity, clean stock and year-round availability, you might want to give tissue culture a try.

Does "tissue culture" sound like some kind of
scary governmental experiment that reeks of conspiracy and distrust? For those who
don't quite understand what it's all about and wonder how it differs from seed,
the benefits are many. First, the plants are clonal, making them the same as
the parent plant (with selection in the lab when necessary), which means
there's less chance your crop will turn out looking uneven, lopsided or
otherwise just plain bad; for many perennials and specialty spring crops where
viruses pose a greater threat, the tissue culture process is important to clean
up the stock so virus-free liners can be sent to customers, avoiding
unnecessary losses of plant material and profits; plants can be multiplied more
quickly than with traditional methods; and most varieties can also be
propagated year-round, whereas with other methods, propagation is limited to
certain seasons. All of that can only mean one thing. Well, two things. First,
you stand to make a higher profit off of tissue culture plants for all of the
reasons cited above, and second, you should continue reading to gain a fuller
understanding of the intricate process involved in creating these plants.

A lesson in Tissue culture

The best lessons are learned from the experts, and Tigard,
Ore.-based Terra Nova has gained prominence in recent years for its tissue
culture-produced perennials. Co-owner Ken Brown's expertise with tissue culture
was all self-taught during the days of Terra Nova's nascence, with the first
experiments taking place in an aquarium. Today, the company has two
laboratories, one in Tigard, where all the virus-indexed stock plants are maintained,
and one in Canby, Ore., where the research and development takes place. A new
plants manager begins the tissue culture process and conducts experiments to
determine the path to successful propagation at the larger lab in Canby. A
cytogeneticist, whom Terra Nova brought to the United States from India, also
works in this lab practicing embryo rescue. There are six other employees at
this location and two employees in Tigard.

Terra Nova tests each plant against 18 of the most nefarious
viruses in the industry to ensure clean stock. Walking into the lab, one begins
to understand the company's seriousness about protecting against virus and/or
insect scourges; a sealed entry shelters the main lab from the outdoors, and
neither the door from the outside into the vestibule nor the door into the lab
can be open at the same time. Once inside the entry, shoes must either be
removed or protected with hospital-type shoe covers. Only then is entry
permitted.

If you've never had the opportunity to visit a tissue culture
lab, doing so is highly recommended to gain an appreciation for the work that
goes into creating one of these plants. The process Á requires great
precision and patience. Once a stock plant has been selected, the newest
vegetative buds are collected from the plant. They are then washed and trimmed
to very small sizes, and sterilized using bleach solutions, which turn the
diminutive plants black. Although the black color gives the appearance of some
sort of necrosis, life continues at the center of the bud. Once sterilized, the
explants, or sterilized pieces of plant buds, are planted onto medium until
they begin to grow. Explants and their medium are contained in tubs that come
presterilized via gamma radiation. For the next stage, the plants are placed on
a medium containing cytokinins, or plant hormones, to help them multiply. Most
plants are cut and transferred to new medium about once per month, yielding
anywhere from 2:1 to 6:1. When plants are being created for sale, the number of
desired cuttings is placed on a media containing auxins to help the plants
root. Once rooted, the batch of plants is sent out to Terra Nova's greenhouses,
where they are planted and grown out for shipping.

Rooted plants are placed in 72-cell packs on rolling benches
that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Hot water hoses beneath the benches keep the
temperature at 70° F, and everything is hand-watered. They are weaned at
this stage for six weeks before being moved to a shade house for hardening off.
Every plug is handled twice before shipping, a quality control measure that
Terra Nova prides itself on. 

Once a new plant moves to the production stage, the
protocols and the plants move to one or more of Terra Nova's contract labs
located around the world. "We place the plants with the labs we know can
produce the best-quality plants and consistently deliver them on time. Over the
years, we have worked with many organizations to produce our plants and have
made great strides in finding out the ones that give us good-quality plants
when we need them," Brown said. Two of these are in New Zealand and
Indonesia.

A Perfect Pair

It was through a series of serendipitous situations that
Terra Nova co-owners Ken Brown and Dan Heims eventually became known to the
world as innovators of tissue culture perennials. Brown, a somewhat shy but
astute man, studied microbiology with minors in both chemistry and psychology
at Oregon State University, becoming interested in plants during the last year
of his career there. By the time he graduated, he had 350 houseplants. Heims,
the more dramatic and gregarious of the two, attended the University of Oregon,
where he graduated with a major in communications and minors in botany and
landscape. After college, Brown joined the Indoor Light Gardening Society,
where he met Heims, who at that time had his own indoor plant business, Exotic
Plants Unlimited. While working at the OSU medical school doing research, Brown
met a co-worker who had some Á unusual plants kept in a laboratory
window. She turned out to be Heims' girlfriend and later wife, Lynne. Both men
married, and though they remained friends, eventually pursued other interests.

A few years later, while Brown was intently focused on
finding daylilies for his garden in a field, he smelled something that would
help determine the future paths of both men. It was Hosta plantaginea. Pursuing
his newfound love, Brown joined the Northwest Hosta Society, which,
coincidentally, Heims had founded. By late 1992, the reunited men had created
Terra Nova and began building their tissue culture lab in Brown's backyard.
Without having posted any advertising, help appeared: A woman who just happened
to have 10 years' experience in tissue culture knocked on their door wanting to
know if they needed an employee. "Things like that just started happening
-- people showing up, situations falling in our lap that would make things
happen," Brown explained.

Their first catalog consisted of a color flyer tucked inside
the B&B Laboratories catalog; B&B was responsible for Terra Nova's
shipping and growing at the time. Their first growing areas were found in the
windowless basement of a bookstore, where they could only work late in the
evening or very early in the morning to avoid upsetting the grocery store whose
parking lot the bookstore shared. Both men also held other jobs at the time,
with Brown working as a food technologist at Armour Food Co., and Heims as the
owner of a landscaping company.

By 1993-94, Terra Nova was finally housed in true
greenhouses, and operations went smoothly for about nine months, until high
water salinity began wreaking havoc on their plugs. To solve the problem, Heims
and Brown bought a reverse-osmosis unit that had to run all night, rattling the
water pipes and making for very unpleasant sleeping conditions for the property
owner renting them the greenhouse. After two months of poor rest, the Terra
Nova progenitors were asked to leave. "I don't blame him," Brown
said. "That's when we bought the place in Canby, and things have been going
ever since."

Making it with Marketing

Terra Nova produces approximately 50 new varieties every
year -- from hostas and heucheras to euphorbias and ferns -- which means they
are working on up to 100 plants at any given time. As the "frontman"
and company president, Heims travels and channels his charismatic personality
into speaking and promoting Terra Nova and its plants. He is also responsible
for the catalog and manages the breeders. Complementing Heims' marketing
efforts, Brown, the secretary of the corporation, is the operations manager. As
he explains it, "I do the operations, I make things work, I build things,
I run the greenhouses, the laboratories and the business, except for the
financials, which, if not for our controller, we wouldn't be here." Jody
Brown is the controller, Ken's wife and a quarter-owner of the company, as is
Lynne, Heims' wife, who is the contract manager.

For the past seven years, Terra Nova has had a
consumer-directed Web site, www.terranovanurseries.com, a pull-through
marketing device that gets consumers to ask their garden centers for Terra Nova
plants. Terra Nova also supports its wholesale customers through a
password-protected area in the site -- the username is "wholesale"
and the password is "sneeky" -- where price lists, plant availability,
culture and ordering information can be found. They recently started a tagging
program that links the consumer back to the site, their marketing programs and
Heims' speaking engagements. "It's hard to miss the tags -- they stand out
in the pot," said Brown. "The customer will identify us, or that tag,
as being a new plant. It's providing a service to our customers, who would not
normally have tags or nice tags for a new plant." Tags cost $0.12 and are
printed by Norwood, an Australian marketing leader. 

Always thinking, creating and innovating, Terra Nova is
currently in the process of expanding. They just purchased another piece of
property in the heart of their other properties for a new sales office and
laboratory. "Terra Nova's always expanding -- if there's one thing that's
always constant, it's change. The breeding programs are really starting to
blossom now," Brown said.

Marketing is helping to educate  more and more gardeners on the advantages of tissue culture,
driving demand and, consequently, the need for expansion. Other tissue culture
companies, such as Apopka, Fla.-based Twyford International Inc., are also in
the midst of expansion, amplifying their product lines and constructing new
growing and research facilities. Supplier growth is frequently an indicator of
market direction -- paying attention to these trends now can ensure your buying
decisions are helping your 
business rather than hindering it.

About The Author

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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