by Jennifer White and Jenny Scala
The Society of American Florists will honor Blair Winner with the Gold Medal Award during SAF Palm Springs 2018, the association’s 134th Annual Convention at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California. The SAF Gold Medal Award honors the originator or introducer of a widely distributed plant or flower that has become established as an outstanding product of significant horticultural and commercial value.
“Blair’s impressive breeding career led to a number of notable new varieties in the floriculture industry as well as advances in plant breeding that impacted the eye health market,” said SAF Awards Committee Chairman Marvin Miller, Ph.D., AAF, of the Ball Horticultural Company in West Chicago, Illinois. “He has trained many of the industry’s leading breeders and leaves an enduring legacy.”
Winner retired in March after 43 years with the PanAmerican Seed Company. Raised in Butler, Pennsylvania, Winner graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture. His interest in plant breeding was piqued while studying under Dr. Richard Craig, who provided valuable experience and industry exposure throughout Winner’s graduate studies.
Winner began his commercial breeding career at Bodger Seed Company in Lompoc, California in 1973. In 1975, David Lemon hired him at Denholm Seed Company, later PanAmerican Seed Company, both of which are now part of Ball Horticultural Company. Winner credits Lemon for mentoring him and giving him a plethora of opportunities, including the chance to breed annuals, cut flowers and perennials.
Winner bred Summer Showers ivy geranium, the first ever F1 ivy geranium from seed. Some of his favorite introductions include gazania F1 Daybreak Red Stripe, which was part of the first F1 series and the first separate color with the striped color pattern, and French marigolds Fireball and Strawberry Blonde, whose unique colors came from anthocyanin pigment on both the upper and lower sides of the petals.
His work was diverse: From improving French Marigolds such as Bonanza, Hot Pak and Garland, to introducing the Guardian cut delphinium series and Sun Up, Sunfire, SunKiss and UpTick coreopsis, among others. Several of his varieties were awarded All-America Selections and Fleuroselect designations.
However, Lisianthus was the crop Blair loved to breed most — both because it was the first cut flower he ever bred and for its sheer beauty and elegance.
His breeding work took a challenging — and rewarding — turn when he began to work with the Ball Helix team on the pigment marigold project, which aimed to increase the production of zeaxanthin pigments in marigold petals. Originally intended as a supplement to chicken feed to enhance the color of both the flesh and egg yolks, zeaxanthin later found a much higher market value when it was added to eye health supplements, along with lutein, to prevent age-related macular degeneration.
Winner was the breeder on the team, and the project required a series of mutations that changed the carotenoid pathway in a way that allowed the percentage of zeaxanthin to be raised from 4 percent to 30 percent, and later, with a combination of multiple mutations, to 90 percent. He learned the carotenoid pathway in detail and worked with chemists to quantify the pigment levels and the carotenoid profile for the various mutations.
Jennifer White is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists.
Jenny Scala is the director of marketing and communications for the Society of American Florists