Plant Breeding Means Diversity

Portrait of Friedemann Ebner

If you talk to Friedemann Ebner, born in 1958, it quickly becomes clear what is meant by diversity in breeding – so quickly, ebulliently and enthusiastically does he speak about his projects. It is not just the different vegetable crops that he has dealt with over the course of his many years of work.

It is also the diverse aspects and fields of activity of a breeder that make his profession so interesting: the daily handling of plants; the practical challenges of plant and seed cultivation; but also engagement with trade structures and consumer needs; and, last but not least, the joy of delicious vegetables on the plate.

Portrait Friedemann Ebner

Breeding Beginnings

An inspiring series of lectures on applied genetics and plant breeding at the University of Hanover prompted him to work for a seed company during a placement semester. This was where his enthusiasm for seeds. After completing his horticultural diploma Friedemann Ebner first worked as a seed farmer and gardener, then as a breeder at the Hild Samen company in Marbach.

In 2003 he got into bio-dynamic breeding at Sativa Rheinau GmbH, today Sativa Rheinau AG. Over the years Ebner has strongly shaped the, then still very small, company in terms of infrastructure, methods and personnel. But come October he bid his farewell to Sativa and spend some time in development cooperation in Africa. A good occasion for a look back on his breeding work in this country.

Sativa field near Rheinau Monastery

Idealistic Start With Sativa

To breed with species where there are too few alternatives to hybrid varieties – that was his clear priority when he joined Sativa GmbH in 2003. And that using only simple “artisanal” breeding methods in contrast to science-driven plant breeding supported by laboratory methods. The aim was to counter the increasing dependence of organic farming on conventional seeds from a few large corporations. With the three sweet corn varieties Damaun, Mezdi and Tramunt, Sativa Rheinau AG brought the first reproducible varieties of the ‘extra sweet’ commercial variety onto the European market as early as 2013.

The hope of countering the total dominance of hybrids at the time has been fulfilled, at least for small and medium-sized growers. This first success gave Ebner a lot of impetus personally but also Sativa Rheinau AG as a whole. Due to external heterogeneities, e.g. of the husk structure, the three varieties are only licensed as so-called amateur varieties. What at first sounds like a disadvantage has shortened the time needed by the Plant Variety Office for assessment – usually at least two years – and ultimately only restricts the permitted packaging sizes for distribution.

Cobs of the three types of sweet corn, Damaun, Mezdi and Tramunt, which differ mainly in their ripening time.

Increasing Pressure From CMS Hybrids

In 2007 there was also great demand for kohlrabi varieties from bio-dynamic breeding. In Germany but also in Italy, where a large proportion of the kohlrabi destined for the German market is grown, classic hybrid varieties have increasingly been replaced by CMS hybrids, which are prohibited in organic farming.

So there was an urgent need for varieties specifically from bio-dynamic breeding. They are now available with the varieties Enrico and Dario, which were approved by the Federal Plant Variety Office in 2019. Ebner himself accompanied the cultivation trials and can now enjoy the growing sales.

F. Ebner during the kohlrabi selection

Good Growth and Good Flavor Must Complement Each Other

The result of another breeding focus is the Dolciva carrot of the Nantaise type, which was approved in 2015. It is very versatile because it is suitable as a fresh, washed and stored carrot and has good Alternaria tolerance. In addition, it is particularly recommended in terms of taste due to a good balance of sweetness and aroma. The Dolciva is supplemented by two later varieties most suitable for industrial processing.

In general Ebner counts good flavor as one of the most important breeding goals, regardless of the culture involved. He quotes a former conventional breeding director who considered breeding for flavor as superfluous because didn’t come with a price tag. Instead, uniformity and yield came first. It’s different today, emphasizes Ebner. Especially in organic breeding, good flavor is just as important as good growth.

Friedemann Ebner with Eva Zand during the carrot harvest

Rediscover the Original

As we all know, one can indeed argue about taste. In this context, Ebner mentions the celeriac varieties Athos and Porthos, which are currently in their 2nd trial year, as well as Aramis, a third variety that is about to be registered. All three varieties from Ebner’s breeding have a strong celery flavor, more pronounced than all other varieties currently used in organic farming. Unusual for some who have grown used to the mild celery varieties.

Porthos and Aramis are not only highly resistant to celeriac rust, they are also particularly popular with customers who appreciate the old celery flavor. Including customers in the essences and cosmetics industry. They use the special high-molecular substances (including phenols) found in the beige grain of the celeriac as aromas in their products.

On the left a Sativa celery variety, on the right a variety for the canning industry that hardly has any aroma.

An Ideal Conclusion

Some 16 years after Ebner’s start at Sativa Rheinau, he concludes his work this autumn with the registration of the celery variety Aramis, the kohlrabi variety Boccia and two onion varieties. These four join more than 20 other new breeds from his work that are now on sale. They are milestones on the way to a greater range of organically grown varieties.

Ebner has now passed on his knowledge and enthusiasm to many younger colleagues. The breeding team now consists of five people. They are continuing to work on providing organic farming and horticulture with the fullest possible range of reproducible professional varieties.

The breeding team of Sativa Rheinau AG: Eva Zand, Fadi Kanso, Friedemann Ebner, Charlotte Aichholz, Noémi Uehlinger

Photos: Sativa Rheinau AG