Volunteer Plants

What the heck is a volunteer plant? I’ll bet many of you asked that question as soon as you saw the title.  Well, here is the answer… a plant that walks up to you and volunteers to give you fruit, just so long as you take care of it.

No, not really. They cannot talk or walk. (But the arrangement holds true.)

A volunteer plant is a known plant that springs up all by itself. Generally they come from a seed that dropped from one of your fruit trees, berry bushes, or vegetable crops.

So, why all the fuss? Should we not just pull it out like a weed? Isn’t a weed merely a plant (good or otherwise) that is growing in the wrong place?

No and no. And possibly… maybe and it all depends.

Nothing like being sure of one’s self. Ahum!

Why is the answer unpredictable? Because it really does depend on what type of plant it is, the location it is growing, the phenotype (Yikes! …Genetics!), and the need for such a plant.

Oftentimes volunteer plants will be extremely hardy. Why? Because some of them survived a winter before springing to life. Anything that tough (in Upstate NY) is worthy of consideration. Furthermore, they may have had to contend with weeds and grass to grow. Again, anything fickle and it never would have grown.

I am always on the lookout for such plants. In-fact, my tomato strain that I created began with one volunteer tomato plant that popped up in the midst of a row of other vegetables. It looked very hardy, so I let it live where it germinated. That year was one of the worst years for tomato plants. I got two tomatoes out of three rows. The weather was wet the entire summer and really did a number on the plants. …Except for this little volunteer. It had a bowl full of tomatoes. They were not deep red, but were blemish free and prolific. The flavor was good as well. I kept some seeds from that plant and the genes are still in my tomato line. (Arg! That “G” word again!)

You will hear many genetic terms throughout my gardening blog. Don’t run away in fear. You are made from genes and you would not want anyone to run away from you if you told them that you were full of genes. I will keep things simple.

The word phenotype is just a fancy word for “what it looks like” or “what it does.” The word genotype is correlated to the word phenotype because the genotype is a fancy word for “genetic recipe” that makes the phenotype that we can see. In other words, the genotype is all of those gene values that make up you, and your brunette hair color is the phenotype we see because of it.

Another example of a phenotype is a short hot pepper plant that ripens peppers early. The genotype is the gene “values” that is the genetic recipe to make that plant short and to ripen peppers early.

That was easy! (And it really didn’t hurt, did it?)

Back to my tomato plant…

Just by chance, the seed that it came from had just the right genetic recipe (genotype) that made the plant very hardy. (Hardy is part of its phenotype) Furthermore, it also had genes for being prolific in bearing fruit. Therefore, it had good genes for hardiness (surviving a brutal winter), being prolific (many tomatoes produced), good flavor, and being hardy through a wet environment. Those were some REALLY good genes to hang onto! And that is why I saved seeds from that plant.

But the color was lame.

Yeah, it was a blend of orange and some yellow. It boiled down to red when I made sauce, but they were not the most appealing tomato to the eye. If anyone here knows me well, then they know that my mind was churning, figuring out a way to improve the color.

So, how was I to do that? Simple! I opened up a catalog where they sold tomato genes. Yup, that’s right. A catalog devoted to selling plant genes! Wow!

Don’t be impressed so quickly. I’m only referring to a simple seed catalog that comes in the mail. (One of 15 that will arrive shortly after you buy just one packet of seeds through the mail.)

When I look at a seed catalog, I see genes, and lots of them! We are so lucky to have such diversity. There are so many genes to consider. I can get “big size” genes, “early ripening” genes, “indeterminate” genes, “red” genes… wait! Stop! I found my red gene!

Oh heck, I’m not just going to stop there! While I am at it, let’s find a plant that has red AND thick flesh so I don’t have to boil down my sauce as much. Bingo! Amish paste tomatoes!

And that is how one buys plant genes.

Or… we find that elusive volunteer that just sprouts up into your life.

Not every volunteer is worth hanging on to. If you ever plant a summer squash next to a pumpkin and let the extra fruit rot into the ground over the winter, you will find many volunteer plants in the spring. What will you get? Squampkins, of course! (I thought everyone knew that.) The fruit is neither a summer squash nor a pumpkin, but a fruit that one cannot really do anything with. I guess you could eat it somehow, but I never had an appetite for trying it. The verdict? Pull it!

There are times when one needs to pull out volunteers or risk losing a valuable plant. Those volunteers may be genetic “hybrids” that can out-compete the original parent plant. This occurs with perennials that shed seeds that will sprout in the spring. That is a really good reason to not let your perennial herbs go to seed.

A case-in-point is my oregano. I planted Greek oregano several years ago. The first year it did very well and had clusters of white flowers. Every year afterwards, the plant seeded over itself and eventually produced a plant that had pink blossoms. The pink blossomed plants eventually pushed out the white blossomed plants because they were hardier and grew vigorously. So what? I still had oregano, right?

Nope. I had oregamin. (My own fancy name for an oregano x mint plant) The two plants hybridized and created offspring that could out-compete the original oregano parent. Not only do I have them in my herb garden, but I now have oregamin in my lawn. Like I said, it is VERY hardy. It has “hardy” genes for my environment.

This is Oregamin. Can you find the honey bee and the bumble bee?

This is Oregamin. Can you find the honey bee and the bumble bee?

What was that “E” word? Environment.

Yeah, that is another piece to this genetic puzzle. (Who’da thought that I would be talking about genetics with a heading of “volunteer”?) I qualified the word “hardy” by saying that the plant was hardy in “my” environment. You see, genotypes and the environment that they exist in are interrelated as well. It is entirely possible that my tomato plant would suck if planted in Florida. But you see; the fact that it germinated in my environment already made it predisposed to growing well here. I didn’t have to experiment with hardy genes from a catalog for my environment. The plant took care of that for me. And that is how plants evolve over time if left to their own means. It is survival of the fittest in that environment. If the environment changes, then they too will change.

That leads us to another related topic… global warming. In-fact, it really needs to be called global weirdness. I have heard this term coined before, so I borrowed it. The weather is becoming drastic in swings of hot to cold, wet to dry, and stormy to still. Why bring that up under volunteer plants? Because it may be the volunteer plants that pop up randomly that will thrive in the future. Yes, geneticists are doing gene splicing (GMO plants) to create plants that can take the new weather changes, but (in my opinion) that is a fragile methodology. I would prefer that people use old-fashioned genetic selection of the hardiest plants to meet the future. And that is why I am interjecting genetic terms in my blogs. The more you read it, the more sense it will make and someday you may know how to create your own plants the natural way for your environment. The more people that do it, then the more genotypes we can select from.

Now… go out and play with some genes! Who knows? Maybe you will create a new plant that will help to feed the world in the future.

This is a volunteer Black Eyed Susan that found a place in my vegetable garden. It survived rototilling and two weeding events. That is one tough plant!

This is a volunteer Black Eyed Susan that found a place in my vegetable garden. It survived rototilling and two weeding events. That is one tough plant!

This is a patch of Anise.  One volunteer germinated here and spread its seeds. These now like acidic soil with shade. The seeds provide food for small birds during the winter.

This is a patch of Anise.  One volunteer germinated here and spread its seeds. These now like acidic soil with shade. The seeds provide food for small birds during the winter.

This volunteer was found under a large Rose of Sharron that had 4 grafts of different flowers. This volunteer seedling was only 1 inch tall and had only two leaves. I dug it up this spring and planted it here. The plant grew very well. It is a crap shoot as to how the flowers will look. Eventually it will grow large enough to cover that old stump I planted it near.

This volunteer was found under a large Rose of Sharron that had 4 grafts of different flowers. This volunteer seedling was only 1 inch tall and had only two leaves. I dug it up this spring and planted it here. The plant grew very well. It is a crap shoot as to how the flowers will look. Eventually it will grow large enough to cover that old stump I planted it near.

These are volunteer seedlings I found under a red Barberry bush when they were about 1/2 inch tall. None of the seedlings are red like the parent. That's genetics for ya! Nevertheless, I prefer the green Barberry because they become brilliantly colored in the fall.

These are volunteer seedlings I found under a red Barberry bush when they were about 1/2 inch tall. None of the seedlings are red like the parent. That's genetics for ya! Nevertheless, I prefer the green Barberry because they become brilliantly colored in the fall.

This volunteer is a sucker that grew from the rootstock of a plum tree. I let it grow so I could graft good plum scions onto it next spring. I'll cover grafting in a future post. A year after grafting, this plant will be moved to a permanent location and will someday be a larger prolific plum tree. I make wine and jam with our plums.

This volunteer is a sucker that grew from the rootstock of a plum tree. I let it grow so I could graft good plum scions onto it next spring. I'll cover grafting in a future post. A year after grafting, this plant will be moved to a permanent location and will someday be a larger prolific plum tree. I make wine and jam with our plums.

That little plant in the middle is a Butterfly Bush volunteer. It is a long ways from "home." The parent is on the other side of the house. Butterfly bushes are wonderful shrubs that die back to the crown each winter and come back up to grow six feet tall with lots of beautiful purple clusters of fragrant blossoms. Butterflies and humming birds love them.

That little plant in the middle is a Butterfly Bush volunteer. It is a long ways from "home." The parent is on the other side of the house. Butterfly bushes are wonderful shrubs that die back to the crown each winter and come back up to grow six feet tall with lots of beautiful purple clusters of fragrant blossoms. Butterflies and humming birds love them.

 

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