NDSU is a key competitor in the long race to develop and trademark hardy, healthy trees
A North Dakota State University program reached a milestone with a tree that can survive in temperatures approaching -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
FARGO — Todd West is one of the few who wishes for a minus-40-degree day every winter.
The assistant dean and professor of North Dakota State University’s Department of Plant Sciences said that kind of cold is a big help to his work.
“It just weeds out anything that won't survive,” he said.
The school’s Woody Plant Improvement Program, led by West, plays a key role in developing winter hardy trees for the region.
The work is fueled, in part, by the concern that the emerald ash borer insect will eventually devastate ash trees in the region, like what happened with elm trees and Dutch Elm disease, and new options will be needed.
“This is a way to expand that plant palate,” West said.
The NDSU program recently announced its 60th new plant selection.
The KoolKat Katsura Tree is a cold hardy tree that can survive without damage at temperatures as low as -37 degrees Fahrenheit, West said.
It’s also NDSU’s 41st plant to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
But the KoolKat won’t be available for purchase anytime soon. It still must be evaluated by nurseries for the best ways to grow, store and ship it.
Developing a new tree or shrub can take as long as 20 years because of time needed for it to grow and mature, and because the seasons can be so variable from year to year, West said. The nursery evaluation after that can take up to ten more years.
However, the most promising varieties are fast-tracked, and West hopes that’s the case for KoolKat.
It’s a sort of slow motion, long haul effort in which NDSU and its competitors race to develop new trees and shrubs for our neighborhood landscapes.
Long haul research
Most of the 60 new plant selections developed by NDSU got their start long before West arrived on campus in 2011.
“I'm standing on the shoulders of my predecessor, Dale Herman, and somebody else will come in after me,” West said.
Herman led the Woody Plant Improvement Program from around 1970 until he retired in 2010. The 80-acre Dale E. Herman Research Arboretum northwest of Casselton is named after him.
The program got its start in the mid-1950s with a focus on developing hardy trees for shelterbelts to protect farmsteads and fields from wind and erosion.
As North Dakota became more urban, West said, the focus shifted to ornamental trees.
Trademarking a tree or shrub allows the developer to own the name and collect royalties.
The catchier the name, the better, West said.
NDSU’s trademarks include Blueberry Delight Juniper, Snow Lace Gray Dogwood, Cinnamon Curls Dwarf Korean Birch and Lavaburst Ohio Buckeye.
Commercial nurseries that want to sell NDSU varieties must be licensed with the NDSU Research Foundation.
Royalties run around 50 cents per shrub and $1 to $1.50 per tree, West said. Over several decades, royalties have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the university, allowing the research program to continue to be funded.
Universities that once did this kind of research don’t anymore because they didn’t have the funding mechanism through royalties that NDSU has, West said.
“There’s not a lot of us in academia that are doing this. A lot of it's in the private industry,” he said.
Now, NDSU woody plants are being grown for sale by commercial wholesale firms in Australia, Canada, England and in 35 nurseries in 14 U.S. states, West said.
Thwarting diseases, improving colors
It’s not a matter of if, but when, the emerald ash borer will reach Fargo-Moorhead, West said.
The insect is already responsible for the destruction of tens of millions of ash trees in 30 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thirty Minnesota counties have confirmed its presence, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The insect has not been detected yet in North Dakota.
Many North Dakota communities, including Fargo, rely on ash as their main canopy trees for boulevards, West said.
“That’s why diversity is so important,” he said.
Besides pests and diseases, preventing invasive species is another important part of West's work.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture added a popular, colorful shrub, the winged Euonymus or burning bush, to its noxious weed list. As of Jan. 1, 2023, it will be prohibited from sale, propagation and transport in the state.
More than 20 years ago, NDSU developed its own variety, Prairie Radiance Winterberry Euonymus.
One such tree stands outside the Plant Sciences building on campus.
Even though NDSU’s variety is not on any invasive species list, nurseries are wary of the Euonymus name.
In a counterpunch, West’s team is trying to alter the seeds’ chromosomes with chemicals to take the question of invasiveness off the table.
“If we can come up with a different variety, make it sterile, it won’t be able to reproduce,” West said.
Another focus of NDSU’s program is developing more trees with beautiful color.
Magnolia trees are among the first to bloom in the spring, but so far, NDSU has only developed one that blooms white.
Connor Hagemeyer, research specialist and graduate student, said the team is working to bring colorful magnolias, even yellow, pink or purple, farther north.
“That on its own makes people happy,” he said.
In developing trees and shrubs, it's all about keeping up with consumer demand with hardy, beautiful options.
“It only lasts so long, and there's always the next new thing,” West said.