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Salad days of lettuce breeder.

Salad Days of a Lettuce Breeder

The cool, crisp salads of iceberg lettuce you may be enjoying this summer will likely be made with Salinas--America's most popular iceberg lettuce. Salinas and more than a half-dozen other varieties are the handiwork of Edward J. Ryder, one of America's foremost lettuce breeders.

At this ARS laboratory, greenhouses, and test fields in Salinas, California, Ryder has crossed promising lettuce plants to produce new iceberg-type varieties that look good, withstand the rigors of shipping, and fend off disease.

His Salinas variety reigns as a classic, setting the standard for the look and taste of a top-quality iceberg lettuce. First introduced in 1975, Salinas is now this country's most widely planted iceberg lettuce.

"Salinas is a plant breeder's dream," says Ryder. "Luck has a lot to do with its success, of course. But when a lettuce variety becomes so popular so fast, it's pretty heady stuff."

Lettuces that Ryder bred after Salinas, although perhaps lesser known, offer specialized traits prized by growers. The desert lettuce Winterset, for example, resists a devastating disease caused by lettuce mosaic virus. So does Salinas 88, which Ryder designed for cool coastal valleys. Mosaic virus gets its name from the pattern of dark and light green that appears on leaves of infected lettuce plants.

Perhaps the most appealing of the lettuces Ryder's laboratory has yielded, however, is a new mini-lettuce--a junior-size version of Salinas.

The midget lettuce is perfect for people who can't seem to use up a whole head of lettuce while it's still fresh. A single head of the new lettuce makes just enough salad for one person to eat at one sitting, Ryder says. Colleague William Waycott produced the new treat, with advice from Ryder.

The little lettuce could show up in supermarket produce sections as early as 1993, if growers and seed companies take to it. The first of these mini-icebergs will probably be a variety that is a downsized version of the familiar iceberg. But other types that look promising include a mini variety that has red-tipped leaves and another with frilly ones.

Also in the works are full-size super-lettuces that resist attack by not just one affliction, but many. Ryder envisions an iceberg-of-the-future that's impervious not only to lettuce mosaic, but also to tipburn, an unsightly browning of leaf edges; downy mildew, a white fungus of leaves; and corky root, a bacterial rot that stunts lettuce.

Meanwhile, Ryder and colleagues are tackling one lettuce affliction at a time. Horticulturist James D. McCreight has targeted the virus that causes lettuce infectious yellows, a severe disease of desert-grown lettuce.

"This is one of the toughest diseases our team has faced," says Ryder. "Some of our experimental lettuces may show less of the characteristic yellowing than others. But a truly resistant lettuce is probably years away."

Still, the time it may take to breed the improved lettuces could be cut nearly in half by Ryder's 1983 discovery of lettuces that carry the trait of early flowering. These precocious individuals produce seed about 9 to 10 weeks earlier than their counterparts.

That trait can be bred into experimental lettuces, so breeders will see the results of crosses sooner. Then, because early flowering causes havoc in commercial fields (lettuces that have sprouted a flowering stalk are bitter and unmarketable), the trait can be left out once breeders settle on the ideal parentage for a new lettuce.

Ryder credits his lifelong interest in lettuce and other leafy salad vegetables--endive, escarole, radicchio, among others--to his mother's vegetarian cooking and to happy childhood days spent tending the vegetable patch at his family's summer bungalow in upstate New York. There, and at their home in the Bronx, lettuce salads were always served at lunch and dinner. Now 61, Ryder says he's probably eaten a lettuce salad "every day of my life since I was old enough to chew."

PHOTO : Plant geneticist Edward Ryder (left) and plant physiologist William Waycott, mini-lettuce creator, with other lettuce breeding lines in flower at their Salinas, California, greenhouse.

PHOTO : The new iceberg mini-lettuce (left) makes just enough salad for one person to eat at one sitting. (K-3824-4)

PHOTO : Expect to find ARS-developed mini-lettuce in supermarket produce sections by 1993. (K-3822-11)

Edward J. Ryder, James D. McCreight, and William Waycott are with the USDA-ARS Vegetable Production Research Unit, U.S. Agricultural Research Station, 1636 East Alisal St., Salinas, CA 93905. Phone (408) 755-2800.
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Title Annotation:Edward J. Ryder
Author:Wood, Marcia
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:May 1, 1991
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