Crystal Ball Gazing: the future of food and gardens

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In the 1940s Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”  Mr. Einstein was better qualified than most people in his field to know.


Time has passed since then and we have learned a few things.

I would like you to consider the following:

1. Five years ago a team of Israeli researchers took an ancient date seed collected from one of King Herod’s palaces and planted it in a small pot. The 2,000-year-old seed sprouted and has been dubbed Methuselah. It is the oldest seed ever to have germinated.

2. Last year the journal ‘Science’ reported that a rare fossil flower of a daisy, from the Asteraceae family, was found in Argentina and has been dated at 47.5 million years old. That puts it in the mid-Eocene epoch era, when modern mammals and birds were becoming widespread. The fossil is unusual as it shows a large flower head several centimetres across – unlike fossils of pollen grains which are much more common. 

More recently the Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association struck a deal with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Niagara to take over two rose breeding programs that had previously existed in Morden, Manitoba and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. 

What these three stories have in common is that they contribute to a growing bank of knowledge that may someday feed the world and make it a more beautiful place. Say, what? Well, as we accumulate more information about how plants grow and how they contributed to history, our understanding of them deepens.

Earn and Invest

The crystal ball through which scientists look at the future of both our food plants and our so called ‘ornamental’ plants becomes clearer with investment in research. Through extensive research comes innovation: the adaption of the research results to applications that are often useful in our everyday lives. Through innovation; opportunities spring for income and growth. From the income we derive financial rewards and a chance to re-invest in yet more research.

The people at Vineland stand on the threshold of the research and innovation pieces of this pie. Only three years ago a small group of interested people got together to create a new vision for the century old facility. The buildings had all but lost their usefulness and were mostly empty. The mature trees on the 300-acre property were nice to look at but served no other purpose since the research facility had been shut down in the mid 90s.  The staff and government support had dried up. The industry had abandoned the idea of Vineland as a world leading research organization. 

In 2006, Donald Ziraldo, the founder of Inniskillin Wines, Dr. Cal Stiller, a founder of MARS in Toronto and several others sought the support of the Ontario government and got it. The facility now breathes with life. Eighteen scientists and support staff are working hard to establish a new order where horticultural research and innovation are concerned. 

Vineland’s stated vision is, “to be an internationally recognized centre of horticultural research and innovation excellence and a force in the delivery of horticulture technology.” This is ambitious stuff but very refreshing coming from a once dormant Canadian institution. 

The Future of Food and Gardens

The acquisitions of the rose breeding programs are just two projects of many that Vineland is engaged in. There is work currently underway that will help to solve a problem with thrips – one of the most persistent agricultural pests out there. Other Vineland scientists have discovered nutrient dense mushrooms that deliver 50 per cent more nutrition than those currently marketed. Yet another project is testing the use of microwaves as a safe, inexpensive and reliable way of preventing frost damage on tree crops and vineyards. 

Jim and the board of directors share a vision of Vineland as ‘the future of food and gardens.’ The benefits will not accrue to Ontario alone but to all of Canada (they must, if the Federal Government continues to support the cause.) Moreover, it is conceivable that people across the globe will benefit from much of the work that is going on at Vineland. 

The Rose of the Future

Take the rose breeding program as an example.  The reinvestment of royalties is critical to the sustainable ornamentals breeding program.  Canadian wholesale nurseries will have access to important genetic material that has been developed and protected by Vineland researchers.  In addition, royalty fees paid by nursery growers on new plant varieties previously introduced by Vineland will be re-invested by the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association into the development of new varieties.

The ‘privatization’ of these programs is great news for Canadian gardeners as we can now expect to see an extension of the benefits of both the Explorer and Parkland series of super-winter-hardy garden roses. 


Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at

Organizations: Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association, Vineland Research, MARS Federal Government

Geographic location: Vineland, Argentina, Niagara Morden Manitoba Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu Quebec Ontario Toronto Canada

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