Jour. Roy. Hort. Soc. vol. 25 (1900)
Hybrid Conference Report pp. 275-277

IN addition to the question of improvements in culture, there is another which is of interest, although it hardly comes within the province of the small Saffron-grower, it is that of the improvement of the species of Saffron itself.

There have been created, especially in these later times, and there are still created every day, innumerable varieties of all useful or decorative plants, wheat, cereals, beetroot, potatos, pears, apples, roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums, &c. As for the Saffron, there is only known a single and unique species; for ages it has not produced a single variety.

This question has occupied me much, and although, so far, I have only arrived at a half result, I think it may be of service if I explain, with some details, what I have done in this direction. Those who might desire to follow me in this line of investigation may find in these notes some useful indications, if even they only serve to prevent running upon the rocks which I have encountered more than once.

Since 1844 this idea has occupied me. I commenced by importing a number of bulbs from the several countries in which this industry is still carried on: Carpentras, Naples, Athens, Austria, Hungary, and Spain especially. Later I have been able to obtain some from Anatolia, Cashmere, and China.

The appearance of these bulbs differs appreciably from ours; a variety could easily be believed in, and the beauty of the flowers of some among them on their first blooming seemed to justify this hope, but it was nothing—the superiority diminished in the following seasons and disappeared at the end of a few years. The different appearance was due without doubt to the transitory influence of a cultivation and a climate differing from ours.

In default of an existing variety, it was necessary to devote oneself to the creation of one. The means is known—sowing and selection.

Unfortunately, the Saffron yields no seed—at least so it has been always believed. I had, however, heard it declared that a capsule had been gathered formerly (at Eserennes), and furthermore the organs which should co-operate in the fecundation and fructification are so well developed and formed! stamens, stigmas, pollen, and ovary.

Desiring to be clear about this, I advertised about 1850 that I would pay a good price for seed—five francs each for the first. Induced by this offer, the Saffron-growers set to work at the harvesting time, and from 1850 to 1853 they found and brought me a certain number of seeds. The fact being a rarity, I reported it in 1853 at the local meeting at Orleans.

Twenty years later, about 1873, I again roused the attention of growers by the offer of money prizes—and they brought me once again a certain quantity of capsules.

Of the seeds only a small number are fertile, and the plants which they yield resemble absolutely the parents; no variation whatever. Can this fixity be attributed to the fact that for ages the plant has always been exclusively multiplied by means of bulblets? To break up this stability it was necessary to introduce hybridisation. To this end I collected in the living state the greater part of the known species of Crocus, about fifty, without counting the varieties—the Saffron is a Crocus: Crocus sativus. Among these species there are some which have a certain analogy with our Saffron, principally as regards the stigma—for instance, C. odorus longiflorus, Thomasii, Pallasianus, Elwesii, Corsicus, medius, &c.

All attempts at fertilisation by means of the pollen of these various species failed to yield any results. Finally, in 1862, I received from M. Heldreich, professor at Athens, an original plant from the island of Syra, of Crocus graecus (Cartwrightianus, Herb.?) which supplied my need. The pollen of this graecus easily fertilised our sativus (saffron), and I obtained almost as much seed as I wished for, the sowings of which, aided by selection and a little chance, have given me very numerous varieties. Some of these have been described, and even figured, for instance, in a note by M. Duchartre, Journal of the Société d'Horticulture of France, 1879, p. 171; and in the remarkable work of Mr. G. Maw, A Monograph of the Genus Crocus, pp. 58 and 74.

The most recently obtained of these varieties merits special mention.

This is what I wrote on the subject in the Bulletin de la Société d'Acclimatation: "The bulb of this hybrid, to judge by its small size, would not have strength to flower, at the utmost I might have expected a solitary flower or three stigmas, but instead of three it carries nearly thirty. Furthermore, this mania (affolement) for stigmatisation seems to pervade all its organs. In the first place, the pseudo-leaves, forming the sheath which envelops the leaves properly so called, have a saffron tint; then several of the leaves, and even the floral bracts, and sometimes the anthers, are surmounted by a portion of stigma clearly characterised, the stem of which is furnished with stigmatic papillae. The botanists who examined this hybrid at the Chrysanthemum Exhibition of the Société d'Horticulture in 1896, found it very interesting. None of them knows of a case of transformation of bracts and leaves into stigmas. But the teratological phenomenon has less interest for me than the practical and agricultural side. Horticulturists strive to change stamens and pistils into petals and sepals, in order to obtain double or full flowers. I work in an entirely opposite direction. I try to transform the floral organs into stigmas, and I have even gone beyond this, since this stigmatic proliferation invades even the sheaths, the bracts, and the leaves.

"Thirty stigmas instead of three! Nay, even leaves changed into stigmas. Here is something for Saffron cultivators to dream about. Some of them may go the length of imagining that he may reap the stigma-bearing leaves of his Saffron bed, as he would his cornfield, but we are not quite at that point yet. In fact, I must warn the Saffron-growers that these stigmas are not yet perfect. At first they are a little thin—it is true that their number, thirty instead of three, compensates, and far more, for their lesser thickness. But they have one serious defect, instead of rising 10 to 15 cent. above the soil, as is the case with cultivated Saffron, they present themselves at the level of the soil, and their gathering is consequently very difficult. However curious and precious therefore my hybrid may be from the agricultural point of view, it has still the need to be worked up and improved by means of sowing and selection."

Unfortunately that is a long-winded work. Indeed, the sowing that I made of the precious seed gathered in the year 1897 from this hybrid will scarcely flower under five to six years. Will one sowing attain perfection, or may it not probably be necessary to await still another generation, that is to say, a further period of five or six years?

I should not forget to say that I possess still some hundreds of young seedlings from one to six years old, which will not give me their first flower for one, two, three, four, five, and six years. Who knows but that among these dear unknowns there may be the phenomenon I have been waiting for, for more than fifty years. In short, I possess at present very interesting varieties, which may be called plants full of hope.

So far, these hybrids have had but a botanical and theoretical value, but there only remains, it is reasonable to expect, a slight effort to be made in order to arrive at an improved type, which may render veritable service to Saffron cultivators.

[NOTE.—The preceding paper was accompanied by two others: Monsieur P. Duchartre's "Note on a Crocus with Monstrous Flowers." and "Note on a Monstrous Saffron," by Monsieur L. Lutz.

Both relate to the hybrid Crocus sativus raised by Monsieur Chappellier; but as they only describe in detail the peculiarities of structure of the monstrous flowers, without special reference to their hybrid origin, we do not reproduce them, although from the morphological standpoint they are extremely interesting.]

Jour. Roy. Hort. Soc. (1900) p. 278

I HAVE chiefly fertilised the female Yam of Decaisne (D. Decaisneana) which has a spherical tuber with a production almost nil, with the pollen of the Chinese Yam (D. batatas) having a very long tuber.

I have even attempted—in extremis!—to cross D. pyrenaica, a pigmy, with D. batatas, a giant, but, as was to be feared, this hazardous attempt yielded me no result.

My experiments, pursued for ten years, have given me a great number, several thousands, of young plants with tubers of varied forms, sometimes irregular and inconstant. Nevertheless, several of my hybrids among the more recent ones appear to advance towards the desired end. Some plants carry from four to eight tubers not exceeding 45 centimetres in length, whilst the tuber of the Chinese Yam is normally single, and attains a length of 80 centimetres to 1 metre.

One of the individuals obtained in the course of my experiments produced at one and the same time male and female flowers.

The seeds have not germinated, and this variation has not been maintained.

Jour. Roy. Hort. Soc. (1900) p. 279

Mirabilis longiflora fertilised by the pollen of M. jalapa has given me an interesting hybrid.

This hybrid is, like many others, notably more vigorous than either of its parents—in fact, it has tubers of good size, about three years old, furnished with supports and forming bush-like plants, 2 metres in height, and if the branches, unsupported, are allowed to take their natural direction, a single plant can form a clump nearly 4 metres across.

On a strong plant I have counted nearly 400 flowers, exhaling a sweet odour, and which, be it understood, are renewed every day.

When frost sets in, the plants are still covered with buds.

Monsieur Naudin formerly cultivated my hybrid at the Museum.

I mention it as possessing in the highest degree the character which is termed "disorderly variation" (variation désordonnée).

The seeds of my hybrids are fertile, but they never exactly reproduce the type. There is found among the sowings the most varied and the most bizarre forms; some of them are so weakly and feeble as to appear to have been born vitally incapable.

The true plant can therefore only be propagated by buds or divisions of the tubers.

Monsieur Lepelletier had previously obtained a hybrid Mirabilis, all trace of which has disappeared. Desiring that mine should not suffer the same fate (as it is not in commerce), I offer to give young plants to such amateurs as may desire to have them.