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Rare Onion Varieties Saved Thanks To Work of NMSU Researcher

LAS CRUCES - It's enough to bring a tear to the eye. A New Mexico State University scientist has pulled more than four dozen ancient onion varieties back from the brink of extinction by planting survivors from a New York collection under southern New Mexico's near perfect growing conditions for past three years.

Chris Cramer, an onion breeder with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station, checks the condition a flowering short-day onion variety. Tiny onion seeds are located in large round balls of flowers on the top of plant's stalk. Cramer has given new life to more than 50 rare varieties facing genetic extinction. (09/23/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"These old varieties truly were in danger of being lost from the National Plant Germplasm System," said Chris Cramer, an onion breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. The massive 450,000-variety plant collection is part of a long-term cooperative federal, state and private effort to preserve genetic diversity.

"Many of these old onion varieties are long since off the market and aren't grown anymore, but that doesn't mean they're not important," Cramer said. "Some could easily contain genetic traits that weren't important in their day, but could be very important now, especially in areas of disease resistance."

Onion researchers need a constant supply of fresh seed from the old onion varieties, some of which trace their genetic roots back half a century. Typically, onion seed only lasts about five years, even under ideal conditions.

The rare varieties are known as short-day onions for the hours of daylight they require to form bulbs. These particular onions start to develop bulbs when the weather is cool and days are 11 to 12 hours long.

Today, the nation's high-production growing region for short-day onions runs from central Georgia, through central Texas across southern Arizona, New Mexico and California. It is a multimillion dollar industry in those states.

Asked why the old seed ended up in southern New Mexico, Cramer said it basically stemmed from a problem with the location of the historical onion collection at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, N.Y.

The laboratory preserves material from hundreds of crop plants, including onions, to ensure a steady genetic supply for plant researchers worldwide. The collection has more than 1,100 onion samples from 63 countries.

But over the past few decades the unit's experts saw a troubling trend develop. They were having problems in getting fresh replacements for their short-day onion seeds to grow. New York's long days during the summer - some 14 hours during the onions' critical growth periods - had begun to cut into efforts to resupply the collection's short-day seed.

Working with Larry Robertson, a plant geneticist and onion curator at the USDA research unit, NMSU's Cramer was selected to lead an onion rescue mission. He had an existing onion breeding program already in place at the university, and, luckily, he was housed in one of the nation's best locations for growing short-day onion seed. The isolated, arid region has very few onion disease problems.

Now, seeds of 54 saved varieties have been sent back to New York for distribution. Meanwhile, Cramer and his team continue to rebuild the short-day collection, adding about 10 to 20 varieties a year on his way to restoring all the collection's 200 short-day varieties.