A new fast-growing tree species out of Minnesota may be part of a climate change solution

Trees with tags
The InnovaTrees at two months old for sale with special tags signed by the breeding team.
Courtesy of June Breneman

Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Duluth recently unveiled a new kind of tree after 20 years of research. It is a cottonwood-poplar hybrid that can grow up to eight feet per year, which is remarkably fast. That means it could be taller than a two-story house in just a few years.

The scientists behind the new tree see it as a possible quick solution to getting shade in residential areas and removing toxins from soil.

Jeff Jackson is a University of Minnesota extension educator who has been working on the new tree. He joined Minnesota Now to talk about how the new “InnovaTree” could shape the future.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: After 20 years of research, scientists at the University of Minnesota Duluth just unveiled a new kind of tree. It's a cottonwood-poplar hybrid that can grow up to 8 feet per year. You heard that. That's remarkably fast. That means it could be taller than a two-story house in just a few years. That is amazing.

Scientists behind the new tree see it as a possible quick solution to getting shade in residential areas as the Earth grows hotter while removing toxins from soil. Here to tell us more about how this tree could shape the future is Jeff Jackson. Jeff's the extension educator who's been working on this tree. Welcome, Jeff.

JEFF JACKSON: Well, Cathy, thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I'm glad you could take the time here to talk to us. This sounds pretty amazing. I can't imagine this. I mean, I understand it takes a long time to come up with a species of anything, a flower or a tree, what have you. What kind of work went into making this?

JEFF JACKSON: Yeah, great question, Cathy. So NRRI is the group of scientists that developed it. And NRRI, they're based out of the University of Minnesota Duluth. And they are the applied research engine at the U of M focused on sustainable management of our natural resources.

So they developed a program to improve poplar varieties back in the late '90s. There was a shortage of pulp for paper in the state at that time. And the team began working on it then. And since then, they have produced over 1,672 different varieties of poplar, all fast growing and disease resistant. And we're really excited now because the star of the family-- we're calling it InnovaTree-- has just been released for public sale.

CATHY WURZER: So poplars, just generally speaking, are fairly fast growing, right?

JEFF JACKSON: Yeah, that's correct. And people might be wondering, well, why poplar? Poplar trees are one of the fastest-growing trees in the temperate zone, which is basically the climate in the Upper Midwest. And that's why the team really focused on poplar trees. As well, they've got some other characteristics that make them very good for homeowners but also for industrial applications.

CATHY WURZER: So the main reason you helped create this new tree, was it because of climate change?

JEFF JACKSON: Well, originally, the motivation, it was because of this pulp shortage in the state of Minnesota. But at NRRI, they're always looking to the future. And their scientific applied research, where can it go in the future?

And so we've really hit it on the money with this invention because it is also a solution for climate change as well as soil and water cleanup. We call that phytoremediation. But the poplar varieties they've created are excellent for that too.

So in terms of climate change, Cathy, so everybody in-- our listeners are very familiar with the red pine. It's Minnesota State tree. And our InnovaTree that we just released will capture CO2 four times as fast as red pine. And so that means for a carbon market project, you could use only a quarter of the land to have the same amount of CO2 captured compared to using red pine.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm, wow. So I'm a big fan of trees. I love trees. I do know that poplar, cottonwood, silver maples, they're nice trees, but they're not-- they're fast growing, but they are not terribly structurally sound, right? Is that a little different with this new hybrid?

JEFF JACKSON: This hybrid will be similar to that type of tree. And so we really want to tell people that it's a tree with certain purposes. And so this isn't a tree that you'll want to plant right next to your house or right next to a septic system. But for homeowners that are looking for, say, a privacy screen, quick shade, wildlife plantings, the rapid growth and disease resistant makes it perfect for those types of applications.

As well, we have partnerships going on using our trees in trials for urban reforestation, brownfield restoration, and pollution cleanup. So it's quite a lot of different uses that you can get from this rapidly growing poplar tree.

CATHY WURZER: So it's going to grow fast and probably not last 100 years. How long do you think it might last?

JEFF JACKSON: We feel good that it'll last 75 years. And so, again, if we're talking to a homeowner, we'll say, what are your goals? What are your goals for planting it. If they want something that's going to be there in 200, 300 years, one thing they could do is they could plant InnovaTree next to a slower growing tree, say, an oak.

Or if they're removing ash because of emerald ash borer, they could plant InnovaTree next to that if their yard's big enough. And then the InnovaTree will provide that quick shade and privacy screen. They could pull that out in, say, five years when it's about 35, 40 feet tall, and then let the slower-growing maple or oak take over at that point.

CATHY WURZER: Got it. Pretty disease resistant at this point?

JEFF JACKSON: Very disease resistant. With these 1,600 varieties we've produced, we screened them all for rapid growth and disease resistance. And so poplars do have natural diseases in Minnesota in the Upper Midwest. But we found these trees to be highly resistant to those diseases.

CATHY WURZER: This is sounding really, really interesting. When can folks run out and start buying these trees?

JEFF JACKSON: We are sold out for 2023, unfortunately. Oh, it's really exciting. We have nurseries across the Upper Midwest that are evaluating it. Very good feedback so far is what I'm hearing from all the nurseries. So we've got one nursery that began selling it this summer, Hauser's Superior View Farm in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

If you've never been there, it's a beautiful location, fifth generation-owned family orchard. And as well, they sell perennials, annuals, and trees. But they are sold out for 2023. So they will have a much larger supply available for 2024.

We've got other nurseries that will be coming online, I think, in 2024. So, Cathy, in the program notes, we'll include a link to our website, which is where we'll list our current retail partners and have some more information about the tree.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, pretty exciting stuff. You sound like you're pretty excited about this.

JEFF JACKSON: Oh, I am. I'm very passionate about these trees. And for homeowners, definitely, I'm working on trials around the world right now using our trees for pollution cleanup. And there are parts of the world that don't have the natural forest richness that we have here in Minnesota.

And in situations like that, our poplar trees can provide a great answer for wood products which will take pressure off of the natural forests. So we've got trials for that going on in Europe to produce oriented strand boards. So it's really been an exciting journey. And I'm just excited to see where we go from here.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Well, I'm glad you had the opportunity to outline this for us. Thank you, Jeff.

JEFF JACKSON: Thank you, Cathy. Have a great day.

CATHY WURZER: You too. That was University of Minnesota extension educator Jeff Jackson.

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