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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Found: The Million-Dollar Strawberry Plant

Found: The Million-Dollar Strawberry Plant
Five Aces Breeding LLC, University of Maryland
Seek to Replicate the Perfect Plant through MIPS

COLLEGE PARK, Md.--Five Aces Breeding owner and associate professor Harry Swartz spent 30 years traveling the world on a quest to find the perfect strawberry plant.

Miles of fields and half a million strawberry plants later, in a row of strawberries in Huelva, Spain, Swartz found it—a strawberry plant with single-bladed leaves, dozens of single-flowered trusses, each holding one berry—all ripening at the same time.

“It was extraordinary because I didn’t imagine what it would look like, but within five seconds I realized it was a million-dollar plant,” said Swartz, a faculty member in the Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Architecture.

That million-dollar plant, nicknamed the “Monophylla” Strawberry, is the subject of a new study conducted at the University of Maryland by Gary Coleman, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Architecture, to determine the genes responsible for the new variety, as well as its optimal growth environment, such as temperature, sunlight and day length.

The one-year study is supported by $63,000 in Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program funding.

“This one plant could be instrumental in successfully resolving one of the main challenges in strawberry growing—getting the berries to ripen at the same time,” said Swartz. “Uniform ripening makes mechanical harvesting possible.”

Mechanical harvesting could reduce costs for growers by $5,000 to $10,000 per acre, since fresh strawberries are picked almost exclusively by hand, according to Swartz.

Strawberry plants usually have triple-bladed leaves that ripen on multi-branched, multi-flowered trusses, maturing over the course of several weeks. Both ripe fruits and flowers often occur on the same cluster.

But if Swartz and Coleman succeed, each plant will feature multiple, single-branched trusses, each with a single strawberry, all ripening at the same time, on branches well presented for harvesting.

Once the genetic and breeding behavior for the “Monophylla” are determined, the next challenge will be breeding a plant with other traits required for commercial production.

“The trait that makes “Monophylla” Strawberry perfect is likely recessive, so breeding it with other varieties possessing firm or flavorful berries on stiff, upright trusses will be trying, as the normal dominant gene can mask the “perfect” trait in the resulting seedling,” said Swartz. “It is difficult enough to breed a typical plant producing berries with great characteristics—succulent flavor and firm fruit, on plenty of single upright trusses. The combination of traits yielding superior eating experience occurs on only one of every thousand seedlings.”

Superior eating experiences are collectively a major goal for Swartz.

“We plan to offer gourmet varieties of strawberries with hints of flavors for specific countries—cinnamon-flavored berries for South America, vanilla for Great Britain, floral for France, and chocolate for the U.S.,” said Swartz. “We want something that will compete with Hershey’s chocolate candy.”

Some of those varieties will debut next spring.

Sole owner of Five Aces Breeding LLC, in Laurel, Md., and co-owner of Colorado-based Ruby Mountain Nursery, Swartz also breeds raspberries and blackberries. Five Aces is the world’s largest producer of raspberry seedlings, beating its competitor by nearly double the seedlings, according to Swartz.

Maryland’s cool western mountains, where Swartz plans to move Five Aces Breeding, is exceptional for growing plump strawberries and large firm raspberries, but it also reduces another major contributor to multiple branching—warm temperatures.

Five Aces has several breeding fields in Garrett County, Md., already.

Swartz’s love for strawberries began in the backyard of his grandparents’ homes in Buffalo, N.Y., where they grew their own strawberries, rhubarb and “Concord” grapes. “They always told me not to pick the strawberries or take them away,” he said. “It made them seem like a forbidden fruit.”

The Five Aces Breeding company name came from Swartz’s notion that “every seedling is like a hand of cards; it’s rare to see something extraordinary. To have five aces you have to use a wild card. Ours has been the use of wild berry species.”

Swartz may have a new fifth ace with the “Monophylla” Strawberry plant.

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