Season 2 • Episode 15 - August 24, 2023

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If you have ever wanted to know where new plant varieties come from or how growers come up with new, cool-looking plants then this podcast is right up your alley. This month we visited the gardens of Kevin Vaughn. Though not a household name, some of the most popular plants in the industry have come from his trial gardens and his impressive hybridizing skills. He has developed new plants in these various families: hosta, iris, daffodil, helenium, cyclamen, aster, kniphofia, pulmonaria, sempervivum, gladiolus and daylilies, to name just a few.

The process of hybridization is not always an easy one. It starts when you select a plant species and then choose the favorable plant traits that you want to have in a new plant from that species. You may want a cool leaf variegation or a new color in the bloom. It all starts with the parent plants. Then you have to be on top of the blooms before they open to isolate the pollen before the bees get to it and bring in foreign pollen from other plants. Then you bring pollen from the selected plants that you want to cross and rub them together. Sometimes this will require the use of a forceps to make sure the contact is complete and cross pollination occurs. Once this is done you then have to isolate that bloom until seeds form to keep all other foreign pollen from ruining the cross that you have made. Once those seeds are formed they have to be harvested, cataloged and saved until they can be planted the next year to grow new seedlings of the plant you hope to achieve. For some species, Kevin can be dealing with 5,000-7,000 new seedlings a year. Once they are planted and have sprouted, it could take years to see if they bloom. For some species, like daffodils, it could take up to seven years to see the results of his cross breeding and up to ten years before that plant makes it to market. This is a long process and many times, he doesn’t get the specific plant characteristics that he wants. Then it is back to the drawing board to start over again.

This is not creating a GMO (genetically modified organism) in the sense of splicing DNA. It is modifying plants just as Mother Nature has done for eons. The hybridizer is like a modified version of the wild pollinator, just aiming for targeted results. It does require a knowledge of genes and how to mix dominant and recessive traits to try and get a new plant, but there is no lab involved. The outdoor garden flower bed is the only laboratory here.


Some of the things that Kevin looks for are unique colors and foliage variegation for familiar plant varieties. He is also looking to create other traits too. For example, the ‘Chick Charms Gold Nugget’, a sempervivum that turns a bright gold color in late fall through late spring came from his breeding work, and that led to his newer ‘semps’ that are 10-12 inches in diameter. This passion for breeding new plants started with his work in hostas. When he was much younger he helped bring a bunch of new variegated and fragrant hostas to the market. In fact, he has introduced over 70 new types of hostas to the retail market. If you are a lover of hostas, you probably have one of his plants in your garden. Kevin joked that some of his older varieties have been on the market for so long that he still sees them on the shelves of the local garden centers.

This passion for making new plants started in Massachusetts when Kevin was 12 and that started a lifelong career path through college and Grad school (his PhD was on hostas and their genetics), to today. Now retired from a government job, Kevin devotes a large portion of his days to working with plants. Now you may ask yourself, how does a breeder of new plants get paid? It depends, but there are a couple of different ways that they can earn money for all the hard work they do. One way to is just sell the whole plant to a company or large propagator for a one-time payment. Another way is to have an agreement with a company that guarantees that you will receive a small portion of each sale of the new plant for a given period of time. Either way, it turns out to be a small payment for months or years of hard work.

So what has Kevin been working on lately? Heat tolerance is one thing. With the hotter summers and drier conditions he has been looking at plants that can handle those temperatures. He is also working on kniphofias, the red hot poker plant. There are not a lot of color variations in these plants and he is looking for other colors that are different than the traditional red. Additionally, he is working on plants that can be sold as garden plants and also serve the cut flower industry for florists. There is no end to the possibilities for this breeder.

Not only is Kevin an outstanding breeder of amazing plants, he is also an author. Kevin has written three books on some of the plants he loves. ‘Beardless Irises, A Plant for Every Garden Situation’, ‘Dwarf and Median Irises, Jewels of the Iris World’ and ‘Sempervivum, A Gardener’s Perspective of the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks’ are all great reads with details of his experiences as a hybridizer. They are available through Amazon.

If all that wasn’t enough, Kevin also plays clarinet and oboe for the Salem Orchestra. He is also part of the Salem Symphonic Winds and the Festival Chorale Orchestra. Truly a man of many talents!

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