State scientists create disease-resistant strawberry
State scientists proclaim Rubicon variant resistant to many common adversaries
After a decade of crossbreeding hundreds of seeds, scientists at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven have cultivated a strawberry that is resistant to the fruit's most common parasites.
It also tastes great, said Richard Cowles, the scientist who did the crossbreeding experiments.
The experiment station, which investigates plants and their pests, insects, soil and water, is seeking a patent for the strawberry. If one is granted, a Massachusetts production facility will grow the variety to sell to commercial growers and pick-your-own farms around the United States. Royalties from the patent would generate revenue for the state, Louis Magnarelli, the station's director, said.
The strawberry, named the Rubicon, is resistant to black root rot, caused by a microscopic worm, and the black vine weevil, a 19th-century import from Europe. Put the two together, and you can completely trash a strawberry's root system, Cowles said.
The root rot and the weevil have been an ongoing bane for strawberry farmers in New England and the United States. Farmers have to dig up diseased plants, and wait for pests to clear. They normally have to wait two or three years before they can plant strawberries in the same spot.
Black weevils destroy some of the strawberry crop at Jones Family Farms in Shelton every year, said farmer Jamie Jones.
"It's definitely a headache," Jones said. "One year, we had a quarter of the fields affected."
He could not recall the year. "I don't know. I try not to remember," he said.
Cowles is an expert in the black vine weevil. He said because he works across the hall from Jim LaMondia, one of the world's foremost experts on the black rot, he thought it made sense for the station to tackle the problem.
From screenings they did in the 1990s, the scientists knew there were variations in commercial strawberry varieties. If they selectively bred the best commercial varieties, they could come up with something better. Over the span of 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, Cowles produced about 500 variations.
That was no simple task, since a single strawberry has 200 unique seeds, each genetically unique. Each seed has to be grown into a fruiting plant, which takes about two years. Scientists do not know how susceptible plants are until they are about 4 years old.
Cowles got the mother plant from what he and colleagues refer to as the "death field," an experimental plot at the Valley Laboratory in Windsor. The plot is riddled with disease, but some hardy strawberry plants have continued to grow there for about 20 years.
The Rubicon was a result of one of Cowles' first cross-pollinations. He continued to make more, but none were worth reproducing. In 2011, he felt confident it was the best.
Although his scientific data confirmed it, Cowles' "A-ha!" moment was, he said, when he invited co-workers to pick some strawberries to take home, as they were about to rot anyways.
"Most people made a beeline for the Rubicon plot," Cowles said. "The flavor is really exceptional. It's sweet and aromatic. It's just heavenly."
Cowles said he would take home trash bags full of strawberry samples and have his neighbors help taste-test them. The process took hours and his teeth would ache afterward from the sweetness. But he hasn't grown tired of eating the fruit, he said.
Cowles named the strawberry Rubicon as a pun. It refers to the phrase "crossing the Rubicon," which means to pass a point of no return. But also it combines the words "ruby" (the strawberry has bright, vermilion color) and "Conn.," a common abbreviation for Connecticut.
Once the patent clears, Nourse Farms in Whately, Mass., will test the plant for viruses and then propagate it. It is one of a few facilities in the country able to produce the plant on a large scale, Cowles said.
Cowles predicted the Rubicon will be sold in niche markets because it may be too soft to last long in a traditional supermarket. But it's exceptional taste may be perfect for gourmet grocery stores and pick-your-own farms, he said.
In the early 1900s, corn breeder Donald Jones developed hybrid corn at the Agricultural Experiment Station, a variety now grown all over the world. The station is now testing the calabaza, a squash plant common in warmer parts of the world. The station is also trying to bring new grape varieties to increase the state's wine production.
The Agricultural Experiment Station planted some test Rubicons at Jones' farms two years ago in a part of the field heavily infested with black weevils. They removed diseased plants and replaced them immediately with the Rubicons. Normally, nothing would survive if the ground wasn't left fallow first, but the Rubicons took off and thrived. This spring will be the first time they flower.
"Right now, they are dormant and sleeping under nice bed of mulch," Jones said. It's too early to tell exactly what they are going to turn out like, but they're doing well so far."
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