Friday, September 30, 2005

Flowers Losing Their Fragrance

IVAN AMATO, SCIENCE NEWS - Vince Agnes, as well-appointed as the flowers that he has been selling for more than 60 years in his shop in Silver Spring, Md., remembers when all his roses smelled as good as they looked. When he opened for business in the 1940s, there were only a few varieties: red, white, yellow, and pink, he recalls. "Now, there are thousands," Agnes says, " but only a few have a lot of scent."

No one knows what's responsible for this waning of fragrance by roses and other ornamental-flower varieties, including carnations and chrysanthemums, but scientists who investigate floral scent suspect that the flower breeding that's led to an estimated 18,000 rose cultivars in an ever-widening spectrum has run roughshod over fragrance...

Floral scent may be dwindling because breeders for the $30 billion ornamental-flower industry pay scant attention to this most emblematic attribute of flowers. "In order of [commercial] priority, color is number 1 through 10," says Alan Blowers, head of flower biotechnology for Ball Helix, a biotech company in West Chicago, Ill., devoted to the ornamental-plant industry. Beyond color, breeders have been targeting improvements in flower longevity, shape, size, disease resistance, and other traits likely to improve the growers' bottom lines.

Fragrance is different. It's invisible, and its sensory impression is as subjective as taste. And, as it turns out, fragrance is a genetically complex trait that's difficult to manipulate by ordinary breeding methods.

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