PROVO — You never know what you may find in Utah’s outdoors.
Take BYU professor and plant breeding expert Mikel Stevens, for example. While recently driving on a dirt road above Soldier Summit in search of one particular flower that might be in the area, he discovered a flower he had not seen before. It was an approximately 1.5-foot tall penstemon with bell-shaped pink blossoms, which had lighter pink striping similar to foxglove but with a larger open flower mouth.
"When I saw it, bells and whistles went off in my head; I sat there for two or three minutes quite stunned at its beauty," Stevens said in a statement about his discovery Wednesday, adding the new flower is likely caused by a natural mutation in the plant’s genes tied to blossoming. As a result, the flowers have a different coloring that makes it unique.
Now the professor is seeking to patent the currently unnamed new flower and make it commercially available for people planting gardens. That’s something that can happen if he can get the plant to reproduce with some adjustments from the wild plant he discovered, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Patents are only awarded to the "inventor (or the inventor's heirs or assigns) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state."
If he does get the patent, Stevens said he’ll likely get a say in naming it.
But it’s not a completely easy process for this new wildflower to reproduce because Stevens discovered it didn’t produce seeds. He and a small group of undergraduate students were able to propagate the plant by taking pieces of the plant and rooting them in a greenhouse. After making more cuttings, they were able to create tissue culture in test tubes. The group, along with scientists in Oregon, is still seeking to get the flower to root in tissue culture.
In an interview on BYU Radio’s "Top of Mind" that aired on April 28, Stevens explained that he doesn’t think it’ll be a blockbuster discovery. He does, however, hope that it’ll be a novelty for people who enjoy growing flowers in their gardens, and also help people grow drought-tolerant flowers in the future.
His work will likely keep the unique variation of the flower he found alive.
"If it’s not sterile, it’s pretty close to it," he said. "(It) probably would not have lived but for a couple of years in the wild, and then it would have been lost."