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Mutation help

David Hershey dh321z at yahoo.com
Tue Mar 19 20:34:42 EST 2002

Several house plant cultivars have arisen by natural
mutations but I'm not aware of any that have been 
mutations induced by chemicals or radiation. Many
variegated-leaf houseplants are natural mutations,
termed chimeras. Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata
`Bostoniensis') is particularly prone to spontaneous
mutations that provide new foliage types. The original
Boston fern was also a spontaneous mutation, termed a
sport, discovered in 1894 in Boston. It has arching,
drooping fronds rather than the normal upright fronds
of the species. 

A simple experiment with variegated-leaf chimeric
plants, such as variegated African violet (Saintpaulia
cultivars) and variegated snake plant (Sansevieria
cultivars), is to try and propagate the chimera from
leaf cuttings.

Although not house plants, there are mutations
available for the model teaching plants C-fern and
Wisconsin Fast Plant. Irradiated Wisconsin Fast Plant
seeds are also available. One mutant Wisconsin fast
plant is a dwarf unless treated with the hormone
gibberellic acid.

If you want a challenging experiment with a mutant
plant, you could examine "Can Feeding Albino Corn With
Sucrose Substitute for Photosynthesis?" Buy albino
corn seeds from a science supply company such as
Carolina Biological Supply. The goal would be to keep
the albino plants alive by feeding them sugar through
the tips of their leaf blades. With a scissors, cut
about 3 mm off the leaf tip every other day to keep
the veins open to enable the sugar solution to enter
the vascular system. Arrange small test tubes of sugar
solution so the leaf tips dip into them. Replace the
sugar solution every other day or when it becomes
cloudy due to microbe growth. Spoehr (1942) kept
albino corn alive for 3 to 4 months and produced small
ears or corn using sucrose. He found 0.3 molar sugar
solution (103 grams/liter) optimal. Spoehr noted that
seedlings often died for no apparent reason, so start
with ten or more seedlings per treatment to protect
against such losses. 

You might also want to experiment with a floral
preservative, such as Floralife, which contains sugar,
an acidifier, and "stem unpluggers" to help keep the
vascular system free flowing. It is designed to be
absorbed by a plant's cut vascular system. It was a
technology unavailable when Spoehr did his
experiments. However, flower preservatives do not
provide as much sugar as Spoehr used. The main
ingredient in flower preservatives is sugar so you can
easily estimate how much sugar a floral preservative
provides and add additional sugar to reach 103
g/liter. For example, Floralife is added at the rate
of 10 g/liter so estimate that it provides about 10 g
of sugar and add 93 g more sugar per liter. 

The photo shows an albino corn plant being fed sugar
solution through its leaf tips. The pictured plant was
grown in solution culture or hydroponics, but it would
be easier to grow the plants in potting soil. Twisted
wire was used to keep the test tubes at the
appropriate height so the leaf tips dipped in the
solution. For plants grown in pots, the support wires
could be stuck in the potting soil instead of being
attached to support rods as in the photo. Cotton was
used to stopper the tubes but today plastic wrap might
be a better option. Irrigate the plants with a
houseplant fertilizer, such as Miracle-Gro, to provide
adequate mineral nutrients. Use fertilizer at about
half the rate the label recommends to avoid
overfertilization. As controls, grow some albino
plants whose leaves receive plain water rather than
sugar solution. 

There are other albino plant seeds for sale but corn
works especially well because its parallel leaf veins
travel the length of the leaf, an efficient
arrangement for uptake via leaf veins. You might be
tempted to do the experiment with a nonalbino corn
plant grown in the dark. However, the original
researcher found this to be unsatisfactory because
even albino plants got very tall and spindly in the
dark due to etiolation. The albino corn plant can be
grown in the light where it does not become spindly
but cannot photosynthesize because it has no


Boston fern:



C-Fern Sport:

Wisconsin Fast Plant seed types:

Photo of albino corn culture:

Spoehr, H.A. 1942. The culture of albino maize. Plant
Physiology 17:397-410.

David R. Hershey
dh321z at yahoo.com

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