Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Sometimes what is called a "plant breeding breakthrough" is in reality a combination of luck and a looking through another person's eyes. Developing ornamental purple millet 'Purple Majesty' is a great example. 'Purple Majesty' earned the prestigious Gold Medal distinction as an All-America Selection (AAS) in 2003.
But 'Purple Majesty' was not initially developed with home gardeners in mind. In fact, it probably would have been discarded if not for Dr. David Andrews from University of Nebraska, a grain breeder who liked to propagate "odd" plants for his students to study.
Back in the mid-1980's, Dr. Andrews noticed a single purple plant amidst some breeding stock he had acquired from India. The purple plant was no help for his grain breeding program, but he saved the plant, thinking his students would find it interesting.
In 1996, nursery owner Harlan Hamernik noticed the purple plants as he drove past the University fields. He saw ornamental value in the purple millet and suggested that Dr. Andrews enter it in the AAS trials.
Dr. Andrews and research manager John Rajewski selected the best parents from their crop of purple millet, hybridizing them to produce 'Purple Majesty', which they entered into the AAS competition.
'Purple Majesty' was an instant hit. Being of tropical origin, it is an annual here, but grows quickly, standing four to five feet tall and two to three feet in diameter at maturity. Leaves emerge green with a red center stripe, the green later changing to a deep purple color.
Sunny locations will intensify the purple pigment. 'Purple Majesty' can tolerate poor soils and drought, though light fertilization and watering will certainly benefit growth.
'Purple Majesty' is easily grown from seed sown in warm soil. Prominent seed heads are great food sources for birds, and are useful for dried flower arrangements. Don't worry about 'Purple Majesty' seeding itself far and wide in your yard–the seed cannot survive freezing temperatures.