The sport of looking for sports
Janna Beckerman, Assistant Professor, Department of Botany & Plant
Pathology, Purdue University
We’re not talking baseball, basketball or soccer. We’re
talking plant sports-- A sport is an offset, or sector of the plant
that deviates from the rest of the plant due to a genetic mutation.
This genetic mutation results in a segment of the plant that is distinct
from its parent both in appearance (phenotype) and genetics (genotype)
(Figure 1,2). These sports often have one, or only a few mutations,
but otherwise genetically identical to the plant it came from. One
popular sport, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, also called the
contorted filbert, was identified in the mid-1800’s and has
been propagated ever since. Some other famous sports in the horticultural
world include hosta cultivars ‘Paradigm’ derived from ‘Abiqua
Recluse’, ‘Guardian Angel’ from ‘Blue Angel’,
and ‘June’ from ‘Halcyon’. In fact, there
are hundreds of hosta cultivars that began their existence as sports
of a more famous parent cultivar.
Sports are not limited to landscape plants.
Many fruit varieties are sports, and include the apples ‘Grand Gala,’ ‘Buckeye
Gala’ and ‘Big Red Gala’ all derived from ‘Gala’,
and the grape sport ‘Frontenac Gris’ that is derived
Sports don’t always give us something new and good: Dwarf
Alberta spruce (Picea glauca 'Conica') is a sport of white
spruce (Picea glauca). As these dwarf trees mature, occasional
branches develop with needles that appear much longer, which contribute
to a more vigorous growth than the surrounding dwarf plant (Figure
3). These sections are called "revertants”, which describes
the reversion back to the "original" or "wild type" form
of white spruce.
Click image to enlarge
Figure 1. The white flowered branch is a sport of lilac ‘Sensation,’ which
is known for its white-edged, lilac colored flowers.
Figure 2. Other flowers were showing evidence of this instability.
Figure 3. A reverting branch of dwarf Alberta spruce. Simple pruning
of this branch eliminates this problem, although new reversions may