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In a world where trees grow slowly and consumer desires change quickly, it's a challenge to produce trees that will be embraced by the marketplace once they reach salable sizes. Regardless of the amount of advertising, marketing and fanfare that accompanies a new plant introduction, a tree's success is ultimately determined by consumer acceptance, which is fueled and sustained by its success in the landscape.

Tree Selection and Planting

By Nancy Buley

David Spahn of The Tree Farm Nursery & Garden Center, Longmont , Colo. , was among the first to plant Crimson Spire® Oak more than 15 years ago. Today these handsome specimens inspire urban foresters in the region to specify them in their own cities.
Photo courtesy of David Spahn.

In a world where trees grow slowly and consumer desires change quickly, it’s a challenge to produce trees that will be embraced by the marketplace once they reach salable sizes.

Deciding what to grow requires foresight, market research, intuition and a bit of luck. Regardless of the amount of advertising, marketing and fanfare that accompanies a new plant introduction, a tree’s success is ultimately determined by consumer acceptance, which is fueled and sustained by its success in the landscape.

Bringing a new urban tree to market may take 20 or more years, when one counts the decade or more that it takes to hybridize and/or select superior cultivars, test the top performers and, finally, choose the best for introduction. It may take another 10 years of success “on the street” for that tree to become accepted, and even longer for it to become widely specified.

The primary “consumers” of urban trees — landscape architects, landscape designers and urban foresters — are cautious of specifying new trees that don’t have performance track records, and rightfully so. Because their reputations depend upon the success of the plantings, urban foresters and others are more likely to stay with the tried and true rather than try a new and relatively unproven cultivar.

For example, even though Crimson Spire oak (Quercus robur ‘Q. alba ‘Crimschmidt’) was introduced in 1995, it is just now receiving the praise and acceptance that J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. always believed it merited. Fifteen years after we shipped sample trees to evaluators at trial sites across the continent, it is gaining the widespread acceptance it deserves. Thanks to a combination of time and specifier demand — from Colorado to Kansas and from Oregon to Pennsylvania — people are excited about this beautiful, colorful, columnar tree.

Crimson Spire oaks have been on the streets long enough to grow into handsome specimens. While it’s always been appreciated by growers who’ve tried it and purchased it steadily over the years, a good share of the current buzz about this colorful, mildew-resistant selection is due to the recent uptick in demand for narrow trees suited for planting in tight urban spaces.

The call for columnar and native trees

Between 10 and 15 years ago, we recognized that shrinking building lots and more compact urban development was creating demand for columnar trees. Apollo (Acer saccharum ‘Barrett Cole’) and Steeple (A. saccharum ‘Astis’) sugar maples, ‘Frans Fontaine’ hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine’) and columnar tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera Fastigiata) joined Skyrocket (Q. robur ‘Fastigiata’) and Crimson Spire oaks and other columnar selections. To our list of tried-and-true favorites we added Swedish columnar aspen (Populus tremula ‘Erecta’), ‘Armstrong’ (A. rubrum ‘Armstrong’) and ‘Bowhall’ (A. rubrum ‘Bowhall’) maples.

Recent additions include Regal Prince oak (Q. robur x bicolor ‘Long’). ‘Musashino’ columnar zelkova (Zelkova serrata ‘Musashino’) and Belle Tower maple (A. saccharum ‘Reba’) a sugar maple adapted to the heat and humidity of the South. Metro Gold Maple (Acer campestre ‘Panacek’) is an upright, narrowly oval selection of the durable species, Hedge Maple. Demand for all of these columnar trees is strong.

The clamor for columnar trees is the most obvious of the current trends driving the production of tree liners.

Demand for native trees is also stronger than ever. Drought, water restrictions and increased competition for water supplies create demand for low-maintenance, heat- and drought-resistant trees. Dwindling landscape maintenance budgets and a growing desire to reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals for disease and insect control are driving demand for hardy, durable, disease-resistant, sustainable trees that require minimal pruning, irrigation, maintenance and ongoing care.

Many of the trees that meet both the “native” and “sustainable” criteria originate in the eastern and southeastern United States, and are not easily handled bare root. Customer demand for natives, such as striped maple (A. pensylvanicum), American fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), yellow-wood (Cladrastis kentukea), Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and others, led us to a major expansion of our VigorLiner production, in which we grow these trees in containers.

Small trees vs. large trees

Widespread recognition of the wisdom of “right tree, right place” planting practices is a trend that is creating demand for small trees.

Wireless Zelkova.
Photo courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

Developed 12 years ago, our UtiliTrees collection of compact, upright, vase-shaped trees suited for growing beneath utility lines is in the limelight. The list is often requested by municipal and utility arborists, thanks to increased demand for small, durable, easy-care trees for growing in the narrow space between the sidewalk and street.

Rugged Charm maple (A. tataricum ‘JFS-KW2’), a recent addition to the UtiliTrees line, is a good example of the tough, adaptable, drought-tolerant, disease-resistant trees on this list. City Sprite zelkova (Z. serrata ‘JFS-KW1’), a compact, small-scale selection; and Wireless Zelkova (Z. serrata ‘Schmidtlow’), a broad-spreading, vase-shaped, low-height selection, are also tailored for growing in this restricted planting zone.

On the other end of the spectrum, recognition of the importance of urban forests in mitigating climate change and improving urban air quality is sparking demand for large, leafy shade trees that will filter pollutants from the air, sequester carbon, reduce stormwater runoff and energy costs and reduce overall demand for electricity.

The Large Tree Argument: The Case for Large-Stature Trees vs. Small-Stature Trees is authored by the USDA/US Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Research. It makes a strong case for the environmental and long-term economic value of planting large trees in city settings — as opposed to small-stature trees wherever space allows. (Access this report via http://tinyurl.com/6hglhx )

Chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii) is a prime example of a tree that can improve air quality and provide ecosystem services in a big way. It was added to our product line in 1997, one of more than a dozen native oaks we grow in response to increased demand for North American native trees. It was selected by the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA) as the SMA’s 2009 Tree of the Year for its outstanding performance in a wide range of urban settings.

This widespread recognition of the value of large trees has also boosted our sales of disease-resistant American elms (Ulmus americana) and hybrid elms.Twenty years ago, we grew no elms at all. A decade ago, just 10 hybrid cultivars were listed in our bare-root catalog, and no American Elms. Today, we grow more than 20 cultivars.

A national elm trial is underway which promises to reveal important information regarding the regional suitability of the many cultivars in the marketplace. More than 1,200 trees were donated for the decade-long trial by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Twenty cultivars planted in replicated trials at 16 university sites across North America are being observed in a trial coordinated by Colorado State University, Fort Collins. (http://treehealth.agsci.colostate.edu/research/nationalelmtrial/NationalElmTrial.htm )

Trends lead to testing

Of the 50-plus trees introduced or co-introduced by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. during the past 40 years, most are still in production. Our tree selection and introduction program is guided by Keith Warren, director of product development. Under his direction, trees are thoroughly trialed, and only the best of several thousand trees in our evaluation blocks are introduced each year.

Careful testing and observation via our network of expert evaluators located across North America helps us determine regional suitability of a new plant before it is widely sold. New trees are sent to approximately 50 sites around the United States and Canada, planted and observed. Each evaluator (plant breeders, geneticists, horticulture professors and growers) who participates in our “trial pack” agrees to send us feedback on how each tree performs at their site. In university and arboretum settings, the best of the trial pack trees are often moved from trial sites into permanent landscape settings, where we continue to receive feedback regarding their long-term performance.

Pink Flair Cherry.
Photo courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

For example, we were delighted to read the conclusion by Dr. Dale Herman, professor of horticulture at North Dakota State University, Fargo, that Pink Flair cherry (Prunus sargentii ‘JFS-KW58’) has suffered no damage in seven years of testing at North Dakota State. Already proven to be hardy through Zone 4, Herman has observed no winter injury since planting in 2000 at the university’s Absaraka site in Zone 3. He suggest that Pink Flair Cherry may be the first pink-flowering cherry to succeed in Zone 3.

‘Autumn Splendor’ (A. saccharum ‘Autumn Splendor’) and ‘John Pair’ (A. saccharum ‘John Pair’) sugar maples are examples of trees that were sent to us for evaluation and were added to our product line after earning high marks for all-around performance. Selected by the late plantsman Dr. John Pair of Kansas State University, Manhattan, they are colorful, versatile, drought- and pest-resistant sugar maples that thrive on the Great Plains (and in western Oklahoma where the seed source is located), and in our mild Pacific Northwest climate, too.

At J. Frank Schmidt & Son, we’ve learned that our best crystal ball for viewing trees of the future is to keep a close eye on trends. We listen to our customers and our sales representatives in the field, and communicate with landscape architects, urban foresters and other professionals who specify trees in their landscape designs and street-planting plans. We listen and learn by nurturing close ties to a broad network of horticulturists, plant geneticists, breeders, professors and other experts based at universities and arboretums across the continent.

Nancy Buley is director of marketing and communications for J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Boring, Ore.

Crimson Spire, Metro Gold, Wireless, Apollo, Steeple, Skyrocket, Regal Prince, VigorLiner, Rugged Charm, City Sprite and Pink Flair are registered trademarks of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Belle Tower and UtiliTrees are trademarks of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

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