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Published November 02 2012

Research brings new plants to region

Absaraka, N.D. - Magnolias might conjure up images of Mississippi and the South, but a team of North Dakota State University researchers could eventually bring a cold-hardy version of the tree to Red River Valley lawns.

NDSU’s 35-acre Dale E. Herman Research Arboretum has housed the state’s largest collection of tree and shrub species since the early 1970s just east of Absaraka, about 35 miles northwest of Fargo.

The work already has led to the release of about 50 new plants or cultivars to nurseries across the U.S., Canada and Australia that are capable of withstanding the unforgiving conditions of the Northern Plains.

The arboretum remains somewhat of a “hidden jewel,” largely unknown to the region, said Director Todd West. But its research helped develop new cold-hardy plants, as well as recommended species of existing plants for landscapers and nurseries that grow best here – functioning as a hyper-localized version of Consumer Reports when it comes to plant sciences.

“The idea is we can make these recommendations for people and not waste their time and not waste their money,” he said.

It’s not a quick job.

West said one of the arboretum’s newest projects is testing hand-pollinated crosses of magnolia trees that have proved hardy in northern Wisconsin. He visited the breeder this spring, making about 50 crosses of magnolia species, and the arboretum recently got the seeds.

If their work is successful, it could give Red River Valley residents a plethora of new cold-resistant magnolias that pack brighter colors, larger leaves and more fragrant flowers than the not-yet-available Spring Welcome Magnolia – a white-flowered breed developed at the arboretum through decades of research since 1989.

West said the goal is to find a cold-hardy magnolia that includes these desirable qualities and traits that could make them into a lawn mainstay in the region.

Before they can go to nurseries so the nurseries can grow them out for years to get them up to a proper size ready for sale, he said the researchers need to verify that the trees can actually thrive here through a full range of North Dakota’s seasons.

“Ultimately, it has to survive,” he said. “It can’t really have the dieback; it can’t have winter damage. If it has any of those issues no matter how wonderful the plant might be, if they can’t handle winter conditions, it’s not right for us.”

West said that means the research team could test the magnolias for 15 or more years before they’d be available to nurseries, which would then need another five years or more to build up the numbers so they could sell the plants to the public.

“We get excited, but it’s a long-term excitement,” he said. “That’s why I always try to be careful when I’m talking about what we’re working on because then people do get excited, but they don’t quite grasp the idea that we’re talking about a decade from now.”

For more information on the arboretum, visit www.ag.ndsu.edu/plantsciences/research/


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587