History of Wisconsin Fast Plants®

Brassicas Around the World and Wisconsin Fast Plants

Wisconsin Fast Plants are a member of Brassica, which is a genus of plants containing many economically, commercially, and culturally important crops. Humans have been eating Brassicas for thousands of years and have bred these plants to have an incredible diversity of varieties. Brassicas range from nutritious vegetables and oil producing crops to animal fodders and weeds. Learn more about plant breeding and the origins of this important group of plants in our new video Investigating Brassicas Around the World and Wisconsin Fast Plants. Then explore further in our Open Source lesson!

Fast Plants Origin Story

Fast Plants® were developed by Professor Emeritus Paul H. Williams, in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Williams bred these rapid-cycling Brassica rapa plants as a research tool that could be used for improving disease resistance of cruciferous plants (a large group of plants that includes mustard, radish, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, and more). In order to speed up the genetic research in the crucifers, he began breeding Brassica rapa and six related species from the family Cruciferae for shorter life cycles. The end result: petite, quick-growing plants known as Fast Plants®.

Dr. Williams continued to select plants that had characteristics most suitable for laboratory and classroom use, such as:

  • Speed: Short time from planting to flowering (about 2 weeks); rapid seed maturation with no seed dormancy required
  • Productive: Ability to produce seeds at high planting density
  • Small: Petite plant size
  • Easy to grow: Ability to grow under continuous fluorescent lighting in a standard potting mix

After about 20 years of planting, growing, and selecting, his breeding process had reduced a 6-month life cycle to 5 weeks. Further breeding refined the population of plants so they were relatively uniform in flowering time, size, and growing conditions – but the remaining variation among the plants is what serves today as the launching point for investigations in classrooms and research. The shortened life cycle has proven effective in reducing the time required for traditional breeding programs, which has led to advances in cellular and molecular plant research.

Today, over 150 genetic stocks have been described that are useful in research, many of which are used in thousands of classrooms worldwide to study many aspects of plant growth and development.

To learn more about Fast Plants’ scientific origin and taxonomy, check out Wisconsin Fast Plants on Wikipedia

Dr. Paul Williams


Dr. Williams has been a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1962.

He attended the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through his research addressing the diseases of cabbages in the state of Wisconsin, was born the idea of developing a rapid cycling plant (Fast Plants®) as a model for research with a wide range of biological and educational applications.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, was made a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 1979 and served as its president in 1989, and received the Eriksson Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1981. He served as Director of the Center for Biology Education on the Madison campus from 1989-1995 and was named Atwood Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995. He became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996 and received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 2001.

Dr. Williams continues to inquire, and learn, and share his curiosity with others.