What’s Happening at Q & Z! - An Interview with Mark Zilis
Marcia Sully, Eden, New York
Just how did Q & Z come to be?

    Mark Zilis formed Q & Z Nursery, Inc. on October 1, 1992, after separating from his previous business, T & Z Nursery, Inc. Mark is president of the company and the face behind the Q & Z’s success at producing wonderful hostas. These hostas are the result of diligent hybridization and tissue culture mutation selection over the years. The “Q” represents Mark’s wife, Katie Queller-Zilis, and her family, who faithfully supported Mark over the years in his efforts in the nursery business.  Eventually, Mark hired his brother-in-law, Rick Vanous, as the general manager of the company, and his sister, Mary Beth, as a sales manager.
    Currently, Q & Z, a wholesale-only nursery, predominantly tissue cultures hostas, but TCs other plants as well, including daylilies, Tricyrtis, Hellebores, prairie plants, and many other perennials, shrubs, and trees.  The nursery is in Rochelle, Illinois. The tissue culture lab is located offsite, in Hillcrest, Illinois.

Mark and Katie at the 2010 Convention

What’s What and Where?

   The overall facility of Q & Z occupies about a five-acre section of a much larger plot, where a total of six greenhouses and an office building are located. Five of the greenhouses are 30’ x 150’ and the last is 30’ x 60’. One of these specialized houses is used for transplanting and growing all of the new plants from the tissue culture lab.  This particular starter greenhouse has a mist system and a biotherm unit for heating the root zone and keeping everything sufficiently moist. Once the plants have grown to a specific size, they are transferred to one of the three greenhouses, where they will grow to full sized liners or 4-inch pots. These growing houses have specialized high intensity lights that extend the growing season throughout the winter. Mark offered, “Hostas don’t do very well throughout this dreary season unless they have this supplemental lighting.” Stock plants, that will be put into culture or be used as breeding plants, are grown in a separate, quarantined greenhouse. 

Mary Beth Vanous working with a customer

Rick Vanous finds a surprise in the hosta flats

   From there, these hostas proceed to the last greenhouse, the shipping headquarters, where orders are assembled and packaged to be sent on their way. Q & Z ships their plants all over the USA, as well as around the world, primarily to Canada, Europe, and Asia.
   Q & Z also maintains large outdoor growing area that is used during the summer season on this same plot. The tissue culture lab is a 1500 square foot facility, employing more than a dozen people.
 
What about T.C.?

   Mark explained that the idea of plant tissue culture (TC) began in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that tissue culture showed more practical yields. By the late 1960s, tissue culture techniques began to be utilized in the foliage plant industry. It wasn’t until the early1980s that the science of tissue culture began to have an effect on the hosta industry.
   Mark explained, “Tissue culture is the propagation of small-sized plants, under sterile conditions, on a defined medium, over a short period of time.  There have been constant changes in the science of tissue culture during the thirty-five years that I have been involved. Although the laboratory vessels and basic growing medium (sugar, agar, growth regulators, vitamins, and other nutrients) have stayed relatively the same, occasionally, breakthroughs are made in media components. Additionally, changes to lighting systems have resulted in enhanced growth rates of cultures.”
   “Theoretically, it is possible to take a four division plant and get 10,000 TC plants out within a year. However, in practical terms, for a company like ours that focuses on many areas, it takes about eighteen months to two years to produce that number.  At Q & Z the cost for initiating a plant into tissue culture is about $500. That’s the cost of putting it into culture, not the cost of producing the plants. We have to make sure that the plants are free of virus and nematodes, and, true-to-type, adding to the cost of the plants,” Mark added.
 
Where are those Q & Z hostas discovered? 

  Mark allowed that he frequently encounters sports in the tissue culture process, but most sports are not worth much. He tries to select and name only the best sports that will be garden-worthy plants. Then they will be introduced. He also has an extensive hybridizing program, growing an average of 10,000 seedlings yearly, constantly evaluating and selecting the best of his own seedlings to introduce to the nursery trade. Occasionally, in the process of growing these seedlings, he finds sports from these plants deserving of being introduced into the nursery trade. “There is too much to evaluate and not enough time and space to do everything. So that’s the one thing that works against me in my hybridizing program. That’s why I’ve probably had more introductions that are sports than seedlings,” Mark lamented.
   Another avenue where a hosta may be discovered is in the garden. Each year Mark visits many gardens around the country to evaluate hostas, saying, “I like to see plants that have been grown in gardens for many years. When I see something I consider garden worthy, I’ll try to propagate it. Occasionally, we enter into a contract agreement with the owner of a particular cultivar and pay a small royalty for the plants Q & Z propagates.”

Best Plants from Q & Z

   When asked which hostas he considers his biggest successes Mark replied, “Out of the 400 plus types of hostas I’ve introduced, I would say ‘Pineapple Upsidedown Cake’, ‘Katie Q’, ‘Summer Breeze’, 'Sugar and Cream’, and ‘Victory’ would be at the top of the list. Those plants were bestsellers that turned out to be great garden plants.”
 
Failures in T.C.

   If Mark had to name a cultivar that doesn’t work well in TC, he would name H. ‘Bill Brinka’, explaining, “It is a wonderful garden plant, a beautiful plant related to H. rectifolia, but it doesn’t multiply very well in TC. Surprisingly, a number of cultivars that are directly related to Hosta sieboldii, which is one of our major breeding plants hidden in the background of many cultivars, seem to be more difficult to propagate in tissue culture.  They multiply very well in the garden, but, curiously, they do not do well in the lab. Normally, a plant that does well in the garden does well in tissue culture and vice versa, but Hosta sieboldii breaks that rule.”
   He continued, “White-centered hostas typically are difficult plants to propagate. Also, many streaked cultivars are hard to accurately reproduce in TC. They tend to mutate, not only in the garden, but also in tissue culture. ‘Gunther’s Prize’, which is a streaked and mottled sport out of ‘Sum and Substance’, yields only about a 3% true rate in tissue cultures. ‘Embroidery’ is also another cultivar notorious for mutating and is difficult to propagate by TC.”
   “One of the overall points that must be considered is, some plants that come out of tissue culture may look very nice and may be given a fancy, fun name, but if, over the long run, they don’t perform well in the garden, they really aren’t worth very much. I try to get some indication that the plant will be a good grower before I introduce it.” 
Middle greenhouse
New Plants greenhouse
Shipping greenhouse
   “Another plant that is one of the worst to TC propagate is H. ‘Striptease’.  It’s tough to accurately reproduce it by TC, although, in the process, it has produced a large number of sports that people have introduced. However, this is one of the cultivars that has been infected by Hosta Virus X, so we like to propagate it by TC because it can be tested for the virus during the process. Some ‘Striptease’ that were infested with virus were originally multiplied in the ground. Since no virus testing was done in this type of field propagation, the virus was spread,” he concluded.

Can you TC virus out of a hosta?

   “Some types of plant viruses can be eliminated through regular tissue culture multiplication; however, that is not a technique that Q & Z Nursery uses. Anything that tests positive for virus is thrown out before it gets put into tissue culture.  I don’t believe in ever propagating anything that is contaminated with virus.  That applies to hostas and all other types of plants grown at Q & Z.”
 
 Wished he hadn’t introduced. . .

   “‘Lunar Eclipse’ is a hosta I wished I hadn’t introduced. It was a white-edged sport out of ‘August Moon’ and appeared to be a good grower as a young TC plant.  However, as the plant matured in the garden, it developed what is widely known as the ‘drawstring effect.’  This happens to a few white-margined TC sports where the margin doesn’t expand as the plant matures. The narrow edge causes the leaf to pucker and eventually tear.” 

Can you have a bad T.C. outcome?

   “Some hostas, especially variegated types, sport in tissue culture and are not true-to-type. It is the responsibility of tissue culture labs to eliminate sports and only ship out the true cultivar. We sort and check for sports at least six times during the course of tissue culture, but even with that number, occasionally, a sport is shipped out,” Mark maintained.  He alluded to a few cultivars that have been registered and patented from sports found in shipments from his nursery.

Goal of Q and Z Nursery

   Mark averred, “Our goal is to produce disease-free, pest-free, true-to-type plants. I believe the key to our success has been our ability to adjust to changing conditions. The hosta world has changed significantly over the last 35 years.  We’ve gone from a limited number of people growing hostas in the 1970s, to hostas being the most popular group of herbaceous perennials in the world. Over that time span, the hosta business has increased ten-fold. The industry has also changed in that we have had to deal with tissue culture problems, pest problems, and challenges from foreign, as well as domestic, competition.  There are changes in U.S. government regulations to adhere to also.”
    He avowed, “Q & Z has to adjust to these changes to survive.  Every day seems to bring a new challenge, and if we don’t meet those challenges, we won’t survive.”
 
What does the future hold for Q & Z? 

   “We are always short on growing space. Hopefully, we’ll be able to add to our outdoor growing facilities in the near future.  We’d also like to expand the growing room in our lab. Most of all, we need a new building to house our main office.”
 
Newest registrations?  

   Since there is a Presidential Series of hostas that Peter Ruh named a few years ago, Mark was inspired to create a Vice Presidential Series. One of his introductions is H. ‘Hannibal Hamlin’, named for a vice president who held office for only one term (1861-65).  He shared, “I selected this VP because he served under Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest American Presidents.” Mark has also introduced H.‘Elbridge Gerry”, VP under James Madison (1813), and H. ‘George M. Dallas’, VP under James Polk (1845-49). We can look forward to more cultivars in this unusual series in the future.
   In 2009 Mark also registered several ‘Gold Regal’ seedlings that he selected in the early 2000s. Some Zilis hostas with this lineage, currently on the market, are ‘Blue Regal’, ‘Prairie Dawn’, and ‘Cerulean Magic’.
   Coming out of a cross between ‘Shining Tot’ and a gold sport of ‘Blue Dimples’ are several small-sized introductions. Mark emphasized, “‘Limetini’ (2009 AHS registration) is one of the best in this group. It offers a low, dense mound of foliage that begins the season bright yellow, but quickly changes to medium green. ‘Limetini’, along with its diminutive siblings ‘Appletini’, ‘Lemomtini’, and ‘Azuretini’, grows well in both nursery containers and in the garden.”
   With a hundred new Zilis hostas listed in the AHS 2009 Registration Book, Mark concluded, “After thoroughly evaluating all of the sports and seedlings, we’re coming up with fifty to one hundred new cultivars a year, but we aren’t going after a specific number, only good plants. In the future, I hope to introduce a tremendous array of new and exciting tetraploid hybrids from my breeding program, as well as sports of these hybrids.”
'Limetini'
 
'George M. Dallas'
 
   This pronouncement indicates that we certainly will have many more Q & Z hostas to look forward to in the coming years!
New Author Bio - Marcia Sully, a retired educator with thirty-three years of service, has always had a passion for gardening. Her interest in hostas intensified when she joined the Western New York Hosta Society. Her enthusiasm increased in proportion to the size of her gardens in Eden, NY, which now dominate the landscape. 

   Her efforts led to being listed in the Open Garden Walk of the Buffalo National Garden Festival, as well as in the Open Garden Directory published yearly by her hosta society. Marcia’s latest endeavors involve growing seedlings, with the goal of registering some of her hosta in the future.

   Marcia is a member of the AHS, as well as a number of local garden clubs. She currently serves on the board of directors of the WNY Hosta Society, and is a contributor to their newsletters. As a representative on the Great Lakes Region Four board of directors, she actively participates in the planning for Hosta College in Piqua, Ohio. Marcia attends the AHS Conventions on a regular basis and is one of the editors for this inaugural issue of the AHS Online Journal.

Next Article
Previous Article
Contents Page