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April 29, 2014

Six Wisconsin communities work with DNR, UW-Madison and McKay Nursery to test new maple and alder trees

MADISON -- Residents in six Wisconsin communities have more reason than most to welcome spring this year.

They're participating in a study coordinated by the Department of Natural Resources that could improve the curb appeal of urban parks and tree-lined streets nationwide.

Using 16 new varieties of hybrid maple and alder trees developed by Brent McCown, an emeritus professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and William Hoch, an associate professor of plant sciences at Montana State University, experts from McKay Nursery Co. have established plantings in Eau Claire, Lodi, Menasha, Port Edwards, West Allis and West Bend. Dick Rideout, urban forestry partnership specialist for DNR, says the first big test of the trees will come this spring when they begin to leaf out and grow in their urban settings.

"This will be the first telltale sign of which trees are going to be able to make it through a particularly nasty winter," Rideout says. "It will be an important step in evaluating these trees, which have been carefully bred for superior pest resistance, ornamental beauty and survival characteristics."

The cooperative research effort aims to increase the number of tree varieties available to forestry professionals and citizens eager to improve the green infrastructure of their communities. Through the years, attacks from Dutch elm disease, oak wilt and the emerald ash borer have reinforced the need for tree diversity in Wisconsin's urban areas to minimize catastrophic loss of tree canopy.

In addition to improving the variety of trees available for urban planting, the hybrid program may help overcome some limitations with existing trees. For example, Rideout says, Norway maples have been used extensively on residential street terraces thanks to their attractive appearance and ability to withstand soil compaction and pollution. However, they can become invasive due to their heavy seed production and their deep shade limits homeowners' ability to grow grass underneath.

While officials involved in the experimental plantings expect some signs of success in the weeks to come, this spring's leaf-out represents only the midpoint in research that started in McCown's university lab more than 10 years ago.

"Trees are some of the most difficult plants to work with in breeding programs because of the complex genetics, long periods of time involved and gaps in our knowledge about the inheritance of certain desired traits," McCown says. "The cooperative nature of this research project is critical because it leverages our most recent genetic advances in the lab with agency, business and community resources that permit well-monitored trials to take place in specific urban environments."

Together, McCown and Hoch, who is also an honorary associate fellow in horticulture at UW-Madison, created the hybrids using two maple species and two alder species.

The maples were developed from the Norway and the Shantung, which has better landscape characteristics and doesn't show invasive qualities. The two alder species included the black alder, which is urban tolerant but invasive and pest prone, and the Japanese alder, which is pest resistant. The hybrid alders are sterile and will not display invasive tendencies.

The crosses were all performed "naturally" using pollinations that produced seed. Variations of the cross-bred trees were planted at McKay Nursery in Waterloo under the supervision of Thomas Buechel, head of production.

Sixteen of the most promising young plants were then selected and more than 200 clones of these selections were planted in the participating communities. When they were planted last year, the 16 varieties were already displaying some notable differences in size and canopy shape.

West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow says participating in the trials offers an opportunity for his community and others to continue improving the look of city streets and recreational areas. While the best performing hybrids from the experiment may not be available in commercial quantities for another five to seven years, Sadownikow looks to the example set by previous community leaders in their long-term commitment to the urban landscape.

"With extensive terrace plantings, 18 parks and a beloved riverwalk, healthy trees play a central role in West Bend's community identity," Sadownikow says. "We applaud the collaborative spirit among state agencies, the university, the private sector and Wisconsin communities that is making this visionary work possible. We're pleased to be a part of the project and excited about what it will mean for the future."

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Dick Rideout, 608-267-0843,; Jennifer Sereno, communications, 608-770-8084.

Last Revised: Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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