Robert Armstrong (geneticist)
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Dr. Robert Armstrong, Longwood Gardens newly appointed Geneticist, began a canna breeding program in 1967, when it was realized that cultivars available at that time were not suitable for use on display in the Gardens conservatories and lakes.
The goals were to develop:
- a clear yellow-flowered dwarf canna and a pure white-flowered canna that could grow well in the Conservatory.
- to breed aquatic cannas, capable of thriving as marginal water plants, or in the border
New blood was required to create something new, and the project started with making crosses involving three cultivars, C. ‘Ambassadour’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Banner’, which were obtained from Yalta, Ukraine and South Africa.
As the project progressed, other cultivars and species were introduced from around the world. Seeds of five species were received from Lago Maggiore, Italy, Canna glauca was procured from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in 1972, Dr. John Creech of the US National Arboretum, added three Russian cultivars, C. ‘K.A. Timirazov’, ‘Krimsky Riviera’, and ‘Soleznaya Krasavaya’.
With the new additions to the breeding stock, red, orange and pink cannas were developed for the Conservatory along with the original white and yellow. The selection criteria used were plant vigor, early flowering, foliar appearance, self-cleaning ability and good propagation qualities. Between 1972 and 1985, twelve cultivars were selected for release. Named for local historically significant places and events, they were:
- Canna ‘Brandywine’
- Canna ‘Chesapeake’
- Canna ‘Conestoga’
- Canna ‘Constitution’
- Canna ‘Declaration’
- Canna ‘Delaware’
- Canna ‘Franklin’
- Canna ‘Freedom’
- Canna ‘Independence’
- Canna ‘Liberty’
- Canna ‘Lenape’
- Canna ‘Penn’.
Canna glauca, which has roots that tolerate being submerged in water, was crossed with the terrestrial hybrids. In 1972, four cultivars were introduced:
- Canna ‘Endeavour’
- Canna ‘Erebus’
- Canna ‘Ra’
- Canna ‘Taney’
These famous cultivars were all named after famous ships.
Even after his retirement to Hawaii, Dr Armstrong continued breeding cannas and introduced two Hawaiian-themed cultivars:
- Canna ‘Aloha’
- Canna ‘Pele’
The measure of Dr Armstrongs' success can be judged in the way that, today at Longwood Gardens, cannas are used extensively in the Conservatory, Flower Garden Walk and Idea Garden. His aquatic cannas are popular with water gardeners all over the world.