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The showy pink flowers of the aceitillo tree. Link to photo information
The showy pink flowers of Simarouba tulae, the aceitillo tree. Click the image for more information about it.

Puerto Rico Provides New Ornamental Options

By Alfredo Flores
July 3, 2006

The boldly-colored, long-lasting flowers and foliage of the rare Puerto Rican evergreen known as roble cimarron, Tabebuia haemantha, could one day grace parks and gardens in subtropical U.S. regions. That's thanks to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists who've been conducting domestic plant explorations since 2003, including in Puerto Rico, part of the U.S. commonwealth.

Commercial and home gardeners are always eager for new varieties, making the U.S. horticultural market one of the world's largest, with more than $45 billion in sales in 2005. But since only limited funding has been available for developing cost-effective alternatives to current U.S. nursery offerings, the ornamental germplasm of nearby Puerto Rico offers breeders rich, new possibilities.

Tom•s Ayala-Silva and Alan Meerow evaluate a Tabebuia haemantha seedling. Link to photo information
Horticulturist Tomás Ayala-Silva (left) and geneticist Alan Meerow evaluate a Tabebuia haemantha seedling grown from seed they collected in Puerto Rico. Click the image for more information about it.

Horticulturist Tomás Ayala-Silva and plant geneticist Alan Meerow work at the ARS Subtropical Horticulture Research Station in Miami, Fla., where Ayala-Silva also curates a National Germplasm Repository (NGR). As one of 18 such facilities preserving seeds and other reproducible plant parts under the National Plant Germplasm System, the Miami repository maintains U.S. clonal collections of a variety of tropical crops. The researchers also evaluate new tropical and subtropical species for possible introduction to the United States.

In several collection trips, Ayala-Silva and Meerow have collected seed from multiple populations of T. haemantha throughout its limited range in southwestern Puerto Rico, where it's native. This evergreen shrub or small tree is bold in color, with red to bronze new growth forming a narrow crown and deep-red flowers blooming for much of the year. The researchers hope to eventually breed and select specimens with the best form and largest flowers—from this, and other, unusual species.

Samples of all of the germplasm collected by ARS in Puerto Rico will be deposited at the NGR-Miami for use by plant breeders interested in developing improved T. haemantha and other potential new ornamentals.

Read more about the research in the July 2006 of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's principal scientific research agency.