North Carolina's state flower is sick.
The native dogwood tree and its iconic spring blossom are under attack by two diseases, one of which goes by the ominous Latin name destructiva. It's an apt description for a fungal blight that has wiped out entire dogwood groves in the Appalachian Mountains.
Down here in the lowlands, Triangle homeowners may have noticed a powdery mildew coating the leaves of their backyard dogwood trees. This disease, which appeared in this state less than two decades ago, stunts, deforms and sometimes kills native dogwood saplings.
Now, a decade of research into potential solutions has yielded a bulletproof dogwood that not only repels diseases but produces larger, showier flowers. Samples are being distributed to growers around the state for testing, and the tree could be available at local nurseries - and in local gardens - as soon as 2014.
"It's an exceptional tree," said N.C. State University horticultural scientist Thomas Ranney, who has been testing it for years. "This will represent the state-of-the-art in that species."
The flowering dogwood,
If NCSU's newly developed dogwood variety lives up to its promise, it could yield up to $20 million in sales for North Carolina growers within 10 years, said Ross Williams, executive director of the N.C. Nursery and Landscape Association in Raleigh. Those sales would come not only from the clones of the select line, but also from hybrids carrying its superior genes.
Trees' secret names
Ranney has already started crossing his peerless tree with nine Asian dogwoods. His goal is to create red-flowered evergreen dogwood shrubs and other combinations of those unusual qualities.
"There's a real potential to reinvent the dogwood," said Ranney, a researcher at NCSU's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center near Asheville.
To boost the marketing potential of the master plant, the association will coin an alluring name in the coming months, putting the moniker through its paces before a focus group. Potential names for this tree, which could unlock its economic potential in the garden market, are a tightly-guarded secret.
"The name can impact marketing," Williams said. "We need a million-dollar name."
For now the tree is known as NCJAM6, and its origin will remain murky. It was found growing wild somewhere in the Pisgah National Forest, thriving in a wasteland of lifeless dogwood trunks and carcasses that were wiped out by the dogwood anthracnose, or Discula destructiva.
NCJAM6 was one of 50 blight survivors Ranney and fellow researchers discovered in Western North Carolina during four years of searching the region, and it proved superior to the others by every measure.
Research into the genetic potential of NCJAM6 has been aided by a $100,000 grant from the landscape association to promote the creation of the new hybrids. The N.C. Biotechnology Center kicked in $100,000 of its own to develop a method of micropropagation that will enable labs to mass-produce millions of clones from tissue samples, measuring just one-sixteenth of an inch, sliced from a mother plant.
Panther Creek Nursery in Willow Spring, 15 miles south of Raleigh, has been testing five other dogwood varieties for Ranney. It expects to receive its first specimens of the yet-unnamed plant this spring for testing. Dogwoods are the fifth best-selling crop for the wholesale nursery out of about 200 varieties sold, manager Alan Erwin said.
Panther Creek, which has seen dogwood sales increase year after year, has been selling other varieties billed as disease resistant, but Ranney said nothing on the market can compare to NCJAM6.