At first blush, the formal name of North Carolina’s official state flower might make it seem like a misplaced row crop: Cornus florida.

But there’s a growing possibility that the uplifting springtime blossom’s parent plant, the flowering dogwood tree, will soon establish an even bigger place North Carolina’s agricultural economy.

That’s the motive behind a research project funded by a $100,000 Collaborative Funding Grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science at North Carolina State University.

Cornus (the Latin name for dogwood) florida (which in this lower case simply means “flowering”) is beloved as a landscape tree not only for its flower, but also for its fruit, foliage, fall color, bark, flower bud and layered branching ornamental features.

They grow wild in high-acid soils across much of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. But plant breeders have tweaked them to produce fancier offspring for growers in the landscape and nursery trade – the sector representing the biggest chunk of North Carolina’s $70-billion-a-year agricultural output, outpacing the state’s high-profile tobacco, cotton and Christmas tree segments.

The flowering dogwood’s prominence as an ornamental lawn planting has become increasingly threatened during the past two decades, however, by a pair of destructive diseases: dogwood anthracnose and powdery mildew.

The North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association, which represents 980 nursery, landscape and garden center operations statewide from its Raleigh headquarters, decided a disease-resistant, patented North Carolina flowering dogwood was just what the doctor ordered.

The doctor they called is Thomas Ranney Ph.D., a professor of horticultural science at North Carolina State University’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River, near Asheville.

“The North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association is very excited to be a partner with Dr. Ranney on this project,” said Ross Williams, executive director of the association. “He has an international reputation as one of the finest plant breeders in the world and has developed some very unique plants over the years.”

With the support of the Biotech Center grant, his second such Collaborative Funding Grant in five years, Ranney has hired Research Associate Darren Touchell, Ph.D., to help him develop new disease-resistant varieties of dogwood that the growers’ association can commercialize, giving North Carolina producers a competitive edge.

Ranney had a head start, because he’d been scouring the countryside for years identifying hearty and interesting dogwood specimens. Dogwood anthracnose is especially severe at mountain elevations above 3,000 feet, where it sometimes wipes out entire stands of trees. Powdery mildew is a problem across the state, especially in warm moist areas, causing them to become stunted or deformed.

Ranney took notice – and tissue samples – when he found individual trees that survived unusual and even extreme circumstances. A tree that survives atypical soil, water and other environmental challenges, diseases and pests ravaging other nearby dogwoods would likely have good genes worth replicating.
Some Asian dogwoods also have unique crop potential including evergreen foliage and shrub forms, says Ranney. Completely new forms of shrub dogwoods are in the mix.

Ranney’s research combines traditional labor-intensive plant-breeding methods such as budding, a form of grafting, with the tools of biotech, such as growing tiny bits of branch shoot tips in a special liquid in a lab setting, where they quickly become identical offspring. The process, called tissue culture or micropropagation, can provide a rapid means of multiplication, says Ranney. Each parent plant’s tissue could be grown into a million copies of the desired tree a year.

“When introducing a patented product, you hate to burn up too many years of your patent life ramping up,” said Ranney. “So this enhances your rate of return. We can go from selection to commercialization in a very short period of time.”

In other words, patented North Carolina dogwoods could be “made” fast enough to meet market demand from their first few years of development. And besides producing traditional-looking dogwoods with disease resistance, Ranney foresees developing product lines in many new shapes and sizes, interesting new colors and even evergreen or semi-evergreen varieties.

North Carolina isn’t the only state to officially recognize the flowering dogwood. In Virginia, for example, it’s both the state tree and the state flower. And Missouri has made it the state tree.

But North Carolina, as the fourth-largest producer of nursery crops in the United States behind only California, Florida, and Texas, hopes to see the flowering dogwood contribute to what has become one of the state’s fastest-growing agricultural sectors during the past 25 years. Americans already buy nearly $70 million worth of dogwoods a year. North Carolina growers would like to expand the market and their share with branded new products.

The non-profit North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association offers educational events, trade shows, marketing support, certifications, and research and extension support for its members. It raises money from trade shows, membership dues, certification fees and advertising revenue. With this project, it’s expanding into developing and licensing new patented and trademarked plants.

“Our association feels this new direction into developing patented and trademarked plants will benefit our members and provide an opportunity to increase their share of the dogwood market,” Williams said. “The Biotech Center grant will be a big help in reaching this goal and will speed up the development process.”

The organization estimates that 50,000 dogwood plants with a retail value of $1.2 million could be sold in the first year of a new product release, increasing to 500,000 plants with a retail value of $20 million annually within 10 years. Profit margins for ornamental cultivars typically vary from 5 to 10 percent, and named varieties command a premium.

Besides, who doesn’t love welcoming North Carolina’s beautiful springtime weather with the outbreak of dogwoods each year?

The Biotechnology Center is a private, non-profit corporation supported by the N.C. General Assembly. Its mission is to provide long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina by supporting life-science research, business, education and strategic policy statewide. It serves the state from offices in Asheville, Charlotte, Greenville, Research Triangle Park, Wilmington and Winston-Salem.

(c) N.C. Biotechnology Center

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