UTIA researcher practices ‘slowest performing art,’ introducing new varieties of hardy hibiscus.

A University of Tennessee researcher and self-described equal opportunity plant lover has spent the better part of the last decade breeding new varieties of hardy hibiscus plants.

“Plant breeding is kind of like creative gambling,” jokes Andy Pulte, Distinguished Lecturer and Director in the Department of Plant Sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture (UTIA).

In addition to his full-time teaching load, Pulte has been working on ornamental plant breeding for several years at multiple breeding sites across the region through a partnership with the UT Gardens and with the support of his department. He enjoys working with hardy hibiscus because he believes it is an underused plant in the home landscape environment. Additionally, the vast majority of hibiscus varieties are bred in states with milder summers, making it an ideal breeding challenge for hotter climates.

Dr. Andy Pulte

“There are not a lot of cool nights here, so the plants never get a break,” explains Pulte.

In his breeding program, he produces beautiful flowers with natural insect and disease resistance that can withstand the high summer temperatures of East Tennessee. His varieties also have unique ornamental characteristics, such as dark-colored leaves.

When it comes to plant breeding, Pulte’s standards are extremely high. He emphasizes moving slow, not fast, and has spent the past eight years ensuring that his plants are better than others on the market. Out of a thousand seedlings each growing season, he may only pick ten or fifteen plants to evaluate the following year.

“If we say this plant was developed at UT, we want it to be the best one out there for the people who want to grow it,” says Pulte. “We want every gardener who puts their trust in us to be successful. We don’t release plants only because it’s cool. We do it because we represent UT and only want to put out the best.”

In 2018, Pulte filed his first invention disclosure with UTRF for one hibiscus variety. Two years later, he filed invention disclosures for 19 more.

“They’ve been so helpful. It’s no small thing when I came to them and said, ‘I don’t have one more, I have 19 more I want to put out there,’” says Pulte. “Working with them allows me to focus on what I actually want to do: The creation.”

1: A common red hibiscus flower. 2: Andy Pulte (left) and Natalie Bumgarner of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture combed through more than 600 nominations to help a panel of experts determine the 10 plants that most shaped Tennessee. Photo by T. Salvador, courtesy UTIA

Since filing these varieties, UTRF and Pulte have been working with a company that is evaluating his varieties for commercial use.

“Dr. Andy Pulte is truly dedicated to his craft,” says UTRF Technology Manager Kusum Rathore. “We are thrilled to work with researchers who believe in the quality of their product that they release to the world.”

Overall, plant breeding is a creative outlet for Pulte.

“For me, it’s like going out and painting,” he commented. “One of my mentors, Dr. Sue Hamilton, Director of the UT Gardens, said, ‘Gardening is the slowest performing art.’ It’s a creative outlet more than anything. When you’re holding a paintbrush, you have control. I have some control — I put the wheels in motion — but other than that, it’s like gambling. Creative gambling.”