Breeding Programme

Background to Prima Bio Breeding Programme

Breeding > Background

Eucalyptus trees have become a familiar feature of gardens in the British Isles since they began to be planted in the 1850s. At least 20 species have proved sufficiently hardy to withstand very cold winters in much of Britain, and many other species will grow happily in milder coastal areas.

Only a few of the hardier species have been planted in significant numbers, either because other hardy species grow much too large for typical gardens, or because seed supplies are scarce.

The more familiar species grown in Britain are valued for their attractive foliage (especially in winter), their general freedom from pests and diseases, and the attractive bark of certain species. The 'juvenile' foliage of some species is particularly attractive, and is grown commercially in both the UK and Ireland, and on a large scale elsewhere, for cut foliage for the floristry market.

However, the eucalyptus species familiar in Britain represent only a small proportion of the species that exist in Australia. Furthermore, the majority of species are not large trees, but multi-stemmed shrubs (usually called mallees in Australia), or small trees. These occur in every habitat imaginable, including cold exposed mountain-tops, cool windswept coasts, humid forests, and semi-deserts. Many of these species have large, showy flowers, which are often strikingly-coloured and borne in prominent clusters. Others have very distinctive foliage and bark. A sample of some of these species can be seen on our Ornamental Breeding Material page. Unsurprisingly, many of these have become widely planted in streets and gardens, particularly in Australia but also in other countries with Mediterranean or sub-tropical climates.

The reason that most of these ornamental species are not grown in Britain is of course the climate, and the effect of this on soil conditions in winter. However, in the hands of enthusiastic gardeners, some of these species can grow and flower in seemingly unlikely places in Britain, both in gardens and in containers that are over-wintered in cool greenhouses. While this does not indicate that these species could be grown more widely in Britain, it does suggest that they are not so far from an acceptable environment as might be supposed.

Many eucalyptus species are very variable in nature. Some species exist both as large trees in favourable locations, and as dwarf mallee forms on cold, exposed sites. Many species hybridise naturally with one another, creating many taxonomic difficulties but also some fascinating opportunities to study evolution in action! Many other species will hybridise with man's assistance, often simply by being planted together. Such hybridisation, initially by chance and more recently by design, has become very important in the development of commercial eucalyptus forestry, most notably in Brazil and South Africa. Thus there is a considerable amount of information available on successful hybrid combinations, and the techniques for producing these. Coupled with selection of suitable individual parents, this offers the potential to create new hybrids having desirable features as ornamentals.

Since early 2004, a project to create such hybrids has become Prima Bio's principal activity. The project received a significant boost in March 2004 with the award of a DTI Grant for R&D from the South East Small Business Service. This grant has allowed investment in facilities that are already allowing the breeding and selection to take place unusually quickly for a woody plant breeding programme.