Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Agriculture

Western Oregon’s climate, long growing season, rich soil and plentiful rainfall make it an ideal place to develop new plants. For decades, Oregon nurseries and universities have pioneered to introduce new plants that now thrive all over the country.

“Oregon is the No. 1 producer of shade and flowering trees,” says Ryan Contreras, associate professor of ornamental plant breeding at Oregon State University. “Really, anywhere you are in the country, there’s a good chance your trees got their start in Oregon.”

Ryan Contreras is an associate professor of ornamental plant breeding at Oregon State University. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Agriculture

Oregon Has Progressive Growers

In addition to favorable growing conditions, Oregon horticulture is successful in large part because of its community of growers – in industry and academia.

“At OSU, we definitely have a very proactive and collaborative approach and always seek to work with the industry to figure out how we can achieve our goals together,” Contreras says. “Oregon growers are really progressive in every aspect.”

One of these progressive nurseries, TERRA NOVA Nurseries, has grown from a tiny company into a world leader in perennial and annual development.

“We have made vast improvements on a large number of genera,” says Dan Heims, president of TERRA NOVA. “We’ve introduced over 1,000 new plants since we began 25 years ago – that’s a world record. We now have 115 employees in the nursery and laboratory, and we sell plants internationally through our partners.”

J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. (JFS), a third-generation, family-owned nursery founded in 1946, has introduced or co-introduced more than 100 unique tree cultivars.

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“The Schmidt family understands the need for new and improved trees,” says Nancy Buley, communications director. “They and over 350 JFS employees are devoted to developing and growing new trees from our own breeding and selection efforts, and by trialing, evaluating and co-introducing trees discovered by others.”

Redpointe® Maple, one of more than 100 unique tree cultivars introduced by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Agriculture

Development Takes Time

Developing new trees is a multigenerational project that requires a long-term investment of time and resources, Buley says – typically 15 to 20 or more years.

“From hundreds, or even thousands, of seedlings or hybrid crosses, just a few outstanding performers are selected for further observation and trial,” Buley says. “If a standout tree appears to be distinctively better than others of its species, we’ll name, patent and introduce it.”

Keith Warren, a 40-year JFS veteran who recently retired as director of New Plant Development, says this deliberate selection process is essential for creating successful cultivars such as Redpointe® Maple (Acer rubrum “Frank Jr.” PP 16769). Seventeen years in the making, from seed to its introduction in 2006, the improved cultivar has become the nursery’s top seller.

“The quality of new plant introductions will only be as good as your selectivity,” Warren says. “You get really good introductions by throwing out hundreds, or even thousands, of rejects to make sure you have the best plant.”

Contreras’ work developing new tree varieties at OSU can be even more complex. Contreras addresses breeding issues that require specialized equipment and techniques, like developing sterile maples to prevent non-native species from escaping cultivation.

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“My program is designed to complement what the industry does,” Contreras says. “We’re not trying to compete. I have an amazing relationship with the growers here – they are always really willing to collaborate.”

Farwest Show. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Agriculture

Taking It Farwest

Both TERRA NOVA and J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. participate in the Farwest Show, produced every August by the Oregon Association of Nurseries. Farwest boasts more than 400 exhibitors from all over the world and attracts over 6,000 attendees each year.

“I think Farwest is the best summer trade show in the country,” Buley says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for growers, garden center managers, plant buyers, specifiers and green industry pros from around the country to come to Oregon and see what’s new, meet the growers and tour nurseries.”

Heims says TERRA NOVA proudly participates in the Farwest Show each year.

“As Portland is in our backyard, we join the cadre of many nurseries in Oregon in presenting at Farwest,” he says. “The show attracts many buyers from the east, Midwest and Canada, and we are happy to spotlight our latest innovations in plant breeding in the expansive show area.”

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