What is a Sport?

Garden Clippings for January 6, 2018

For a botanist, the word “sport” has little to do with physical activity.  Rather, a sport is an anomaly or mutation found growing on a plant that differs from the rest of the plant.

Sports in plants are not unusual.  I have seen a mass planting of bright red tulips where one or two tulips have a few odd yellow stripes.  Or a Clematis that is in full bloom with a few flowers that have extra ruffles in the petals.   A more common sight might be a Variegated Maple tree with an entire branch that has plain green leaves.

The English language is full of strange twists.  A dictionary definition of the word sport reveals a myriad of answers.  Most define a sport as any sort of physical exercise.  To my mind, that would include the obvious sports such as hockey and running, but would also include gardening and pushing a lawn mower.

Dig a little deeper in the dictionary, and we find that sport originated in the 1400s when sport was the term given to a diversion or distraction from the toil and repetition of everyday life.  That’s interestingly similar to the botanist’s use of the word.

Yet another definition of sport is in reference to wearing a piece of clothing.  To use the word in context; Samantha is sporting a new jacket or Sam is sporting a new haircut.

In botany and horticulture a sport is an odd branch or bloom that differs in colour, form, structure or shape from the parent plant.   The sport can usually be traced back to its origin.  A Dwarf Alberta Spruce that shoots a new sport indicates that its origin was probably a common or native White Spruce.  As horticulturists develop more cultivars and hybrids, we can expect to see more sports.

Sports in horticulture can either be nuisance or a lottery winner.  If the sport growing from the parent plant is unattractive with no positive attributes it should be cut off or perhaps even left to die.  But if the sport or off shoot has exciting characteristics, it might be captured and propagated as a new plant species.  With luck, seeds or plant cuttings can be taken and grown with the hopes that the new plant is viable enough to sustain itself.

Many plants have originated as sports.  The common nectarine was originally a sport of the peach.  Many varieties of fruit trees, roses, tulips, and clematis were originated as sports.

A few months ago a client friend gave me a Rose of Sharon seedling with a new and unique flower.  I planted it in my garden at the south side or the house and be able to evaluate it in a year or two after I see its flower.

Once a sport becomes a new plant with a new identity, it can no longer be called a sport.  But if the new sport eventually sports another sport, the game turns into a sport.