Few genetic studies have been conducted on the inheritance of cold hardiness (CH) in woody plants. An understanding of the genetic control of CH can greatly assist the breeder in reducing winter injury. This study was initiated to evaluate the distribution of CH phenotypes in segregating populations of evergreen rhododendrons. Naturally acclimated leaves from individual plants (parents, F1 and 47 F2 progeny) were subjected to controlled freeze–thaw regimes. Using slow cooling rates, leaf discs were cooled over a range of treatment temperatures from –10°C to –52°C. Freezing injury of leaf tissue was assessed by measuring ion-leakage and non-linear regression analysis (data fitted to Gompertz functions) was used to estimate Tmax, the temperature causing the maximum rate of injury. Tmax for the parent plants (R. catawbiense & R. fortunei) and the F1 cultivar Ceylon, were estimated to be –51.6°C, –30.1°C, and –40.4°C, respectively. CH estimates among F2 progeny (Ceylon, selfed) were normally distributed from –14.8°C to –41.5°C, with mean of –27.6°C. Most F2 progeny were less cold-hardy than the tender parent, R. fortunei. The apparent reduction in F2 CH may be caused by the differences in age between the parents (20-year-old mature plants) and F2 progenies (3-year-old juvenile seedlings). Currently, we are testing age-dependent CH responses in rhododendrons, and are also characterizing CH distributions in a backcross population.
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