New Zealand gentian flowers bring new color to Japan



A team of scientists and growers in New Zealand has reinvented one of Japan’s favorite flowers in a new range of colors.

The gentian, a flower native to the high alpine regions of Asia, Europe and the Americas, has always held a special place in Japanese homes and hearts. It is often used in flower arrangements and Buddhists traditionally offer gentians at the altars of their ancestors. It is the official flower of Nagano and Kumamoto cities.

Ninety percent of gentians are blue, and, apart from a smattering of white and pale pink, no other colors have been mass-produced.

That is until now.

Hot pink, red, purple and yellow gentians are among the host of new blooms developed by New Zealand grower John Moffatt and scientists at the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research.

The new breeds, which have been over a decade in the making, are expected to become a lucrative export business for the New Zealand flower industry.

Industry experts predict the new colors will sell for double the price of blue gentians, with total exports to Japan worth anywhere up to 20 million New Zealand dollars (1.2 billion yen) by the end of the decade.

Moffatt is one of a handful of gentian growers who have been operating in New Zealand for the last 20 years. It was Moffatt who first saw the potential for expansion in the gentian market 15 years ago.

He said New Zealand is an ideal place to grow gentians because of its cool climate and the out-of-season advantage it has over Japan and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

“But it became clear to me the color range was limited. There was only the traditional blue, white and one pink,” Moffatt said. “I decided there was obviously the opportunity for other colors, and so I went to Crop and Food with the idea that we start a breeding program.”

Crop and Food Research scientist Ed Morgan said it was only a matter of months before the team was able to prove it was possible to develop new colors through crossbreeding.

But producing a commercially viable crop that was also sterile, so as not to threaten the company’s intellectual property, was a slow and complex process, Morgan said.

New Zealand has won the race, however, against Japanese scientists who were also struggling to come up with new colored gentians, Morgan said.

“We knew that there were Japanese companies working on producing new colors through genetic engineering, but, because all of their research was published in Japanese, the information we had was limited,” he said.

Now that the new colors have been patented, Moffatt and Crop and Food Research have formed a partnership with Japan’s main gentian-growing region, in Hachimantai, Iwate Prefecture.

“The Japanese industry noticed what we are doing with the new colors and is very impressed. The local growers are (testing) our new colors and we have set up a joint breeding program,” Moffatt said.

Moffatt’s Southland Flowers, Food and Crop Research, the Hachimantai Municipal Government and a coalition of Hachimantai growers are equal partners in a company formed to oversee the breeding program — Rhindo International Ltd.

“We are all very excited and working hard in different areas to further breeding,” Moffatt said.