April 27, 2023

‘Potential for greatness in any given seed’

Research at NDSU is making a big impact on trees, from seeds to saplings.

Since 1954, the NDSU Woody Plant Improvement Project has been researching, developing and patenting new woody plant varieties. Woody plants consist of trees and shrubs and are defined as perennial plants that produce secondary growth. They can be ornamental, like shade trees and flowering shrubs, or edible, like apple and plum trees.

The project began introducing plants in 1986. Since then, it has introduced 61 superior ornamental woody plants for production and sale and registered 41 active trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These plants are available at garden centers regionally and nationally, in addition to commercial wholesale in three countries outside the United States: Australia, Canada and England.

“The Woody Plant Improvement Project has two main goals,” said Todd West, director of the program and professor of plant sciences. “One, to evaluate unreleased or released cultivars from the nursery trade to determine usability in the Northern Great Plains, and two, to increase diversity through the selecting and/or breeding new woody plants suitable for the Northern Great Plains.”

The plants produced by the project are bred specifically for the climate of North Dakota and the region. The research focuses on making these plants durable and adaptable to harsh climates with an effort to increase plant diversity in the region.

Connor Hagemeyer is a research specialist for the Woody Plant Improvement Program. Hagemeyer has had a passion for plants since he was young. He came to NDSU to study horticulture for his undergraduate degree. He was introduced to woody plants research during a class with West.

Now a graduate student in the plant sciences department, Hagemeyer’s research experience includes ornamental plant breeding, plant tissue culture, plant propagation, plant evaluations and arboretum management.

“Not many other research programs give such a wide range of desirable skills in horticulture,” said Hagemeyer, who is from Clara City, Minnesota. “I am now qualified for positions all across the country and even the world thanks to the skills I learned conducting my research at NDSU.”

The Woody Plant Improvement Project focuses on both short-term and long-term research. Research is mainly conducted at the NDSU Dale E. Herman Research Arboretum, near Absaraka, North Dakota, and in the greenhouses on the NDSU campus. To Hagemeyer, patience, perseverance and possibilities are all at the center of his research.

“The potential for greatness in any given seed is really exciting for me,” Hagemeyer said. “Being able to decide which plants to use as the breeding parents to best give the results we are looking for is a challenge that never gets old. Then getting all the seeds to grow, planting them in the field for evaluation and the thought of ultimately selecting the next new cultivar is thrilling even though it will take several years to see the results.”

Some of the most popular plant varieties produced by the Woody Plant Improvement Project can be seen throughout the NDSU campus: Northern Acclaim® thornless honeylocust is planted between the Memorial Union and A. Glenn Hill Center, and Dakota Sunspot® Potentilla shrubs border the patio on the east side of Bison court. NDSU was recently named a Tree Campus USA from the Arbor Day Foundation for the 12th year in a row.

“My research experience has helped me become a better student and a better person. Researching trees is a long-term commitment but it allows you to take a step back and take in all the small things along the way,” Hagemeyer said. “Every season offers a different opportunity to learn something new about these plants while we wait for our end result. I think that has helped me take a different approach to education and learning; not as a box to tick but rather as a lifelong journey. Patience and perseverance are among the virtues that I have been learning along the way.”

Begin cultivating your NDSU experience by applying today at ndsu.edu/apply.

Start your NDSU experience by completing your application.