NU-Developed Decorative Purple Millet Earns All-America Selections Gold Medal (0209030)

September 03, 2002

NU-Developed Decorative Purple Millet Earns All-America Selections Gold Medal

Lincoln, Neb. — Thanks to a serendipitous discovery in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln breeding program, a showy version of a plant usually used for forage or grain is likely to appear in home gardens nationwide as a 2003 All-America Selections Gold Medal award winner.

The newcomer is Purple Majesty, an unusually attractive hybrid of pearl millet, or Pennisetum glaucum, which is commonly called cattail or bullrush millet, said David Andrews, NU Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources emeritus professor of plant breeding. Andrews developed this hybrid together with John Rajewski, research manager in the agronomy and horticulture department.

Purple Majesty features showy purple leaves with a red midrib, or stripe, down the center of the leaves. Its long, narrow seedhead has attractive bristles good for floral arrangements. At maturity, this annual plant is 4 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. It's suited to climates from southern Canada to the southern United States.

Purple Majesty will be featured as an AAS All-American Selection and Gold Medal winner for 2003. The ornamental millet topped the floral class in AAS trials at 33 locations across North America, and earned the organization's prestigious Gold Medal for its exceptional garden performance.

The Gold Medal award is reserved for plant breeding breakthroughs, according to AAS. It's awarded rarely, typically only once or twice a decade. AAS is a non-profit organization that has conducted independent plant trials since 1932.

Ball Horticultural Products Co., a plant wholesaler, began making NU's Purple Majesty available to garden centers this summer under a university licensing agreement. NU will receive royalties on sales.

Andrews typically breeds agricultural, not horticultural, plants.

"My goal at NU was to breed and release sorghum and pearl millets for grain in the U.S.," he said.

However, an unusually colored plant got Andrews' attention as he was evaluating potential breeding stock from India. The purplish plant was no help in developing grain-producing pearl millet varieties, but its unusual appearance earned it a spot in a genetics nursery for university students.

"Over time, we discovered some odd characteristics and kept them in a genetics nursery so that students could study them," he said.

It remained in the teaching nursery since the mid-1980s, but researchers didn't realize its ornamental value.

On a chance visit in 1996, the unusual purple millet caught eye of Harlan Hamernik, owner of Bluebird Nursery at Clarkson, Neb.

"He drove by the nursery field, saw this purple millet and suggested I enter it in the All-America Selections contest in 1998," Andrews said. He heeded the advice from the highly regarded plantsman.

Andrews and Rajewski looked at several purple pearl millet selections and made the Purple Majesty hybrid from the most desirable parents before entering it in AAS competition.

Andrews is pleased with Purple Majesty's showing.

"AAS has the reputation of only promoting plants that are highly marketable," Andrews said. "AAS winner status almost guarantees success."

Homeowners using Purple Majesty in their landscapes should choose a well-drained, sunny site. The plant is tropical in origin and likes warmth. The sunny location is important because sunlight strengthens the purple color, which appears after a three-week juvenile phase. Although it can tolerate drought and poor soils, Purple Majesty responds strongly to early fertilizer applications and light watering.

Andrews' millet research was conducted in cooperation with IANR's Agricultural Research Division and INTSORMIL, a U.S. Agency for International Development international research project.

David Andrews
Agronomy and Horticulture
Professor Emeritus

Vicki Miller
Research Communications Coordinator
(402) 472-3813

Department: Agronomy & Horticulture