University of Connecticut researchers announce NativeStar plants
Showy male flowers of Myrica gale "Lowboy" in early spring
Provided by UConn

University of Connecticut researchers announce NativeStar plants

Plant scientists have developed novel plants that are native to the northeast and are manageable cultivars for landscaping.

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The University of Connecticut, in collaboration with researchers in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR), have established a trademark for improved cultivars of novel, native plant species.

Professor of plant breeding and horticulture Mark Brand and associate professor of horticulture Jessica Lubell-Brand have been developing new cultivars for years, making more attractive and manageable plants for landscaping in Connecticut and areas with similar climates. These plants will be marketed under the NativeStar trademark.

The NativeStar trademark is inspired by the fact that all of its plants are native to the northeast region of the United States, and because they have demonstrated to be “star” performers in the landscape.

There has been an increasing emphasis on using native plants for landscaping. Native plants support pollinators and are, by definition, non-invasive.

“Native plants have been gaining momentum and the movement continues to strengthen,” Brand says. “Native use is here to stay.”

Natural Inventors

Plant nurseries want to provide their customers with new plants every year. In order to do this, they need to get new plants from breeders. That’s where inventors like Brand and Lubell-Brand come in. They have developed relationships with local and national brand nurseries through their years of inventing and marketing new plants.

Brand and Lubell-Brand are experienced plant inventors. Brand previously invented four sterile Japanese barberries. The Japanese barberry is a popular, but invasive, plant. By making sterile versions, landscapers can enjoy the aesthetic benefits of the plant without the environmental concerns.

To transform their innovative cultivars from idea to reality, Brand and Lubell-Brand work closely with UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services (TCS), the University’s technology transfer unit. TCS worked with the CAHNR researchers to establish a testing agreement for the growth and evaluation of the new plant with the nursery. The trial period can last anywhere between two-to-five-years before a nursery can commit to a long-term license agreement.

“Any new plant needs to be able to fit into standard nursery production methods in a plug-and-play fashion,” Brand says.

Nurseries want to see that the plant can grow easily and successfully in their existing production system. Generally, nurseries look for a 70% success rate with cutting propagation, meaning if they stick 100 shoots to root, they will end up with at least 70 viable plants.

When creating innovative crosses, the inventors have breeding goals to produce plants that have dense, full, and compact habits and have exceptional foliage, flowers, fruit, or fall color. They develop specific goals for each species depending on the plant’s natural characteristics. The inventors also consider how well the plants withstand regular weather conditions in the area, pests, diseases, and if they can tolerate increasingly warm temperatures brought on by global warming.

Brand holds patents for other plant species, including the black chokeberry and several varieties of butterfly bushes.

Brand recently published an article in HortScience about his novel sandcherry, a native shrub selection with a unique branching pattern, numerous pollinator-supporting white flowers in spring, attractive olive green foliage, and orange-red fall color.

Many of these plants, which have been on the market for years, have been major commercial successes, selling tens of thousands of plants per year. The work has been popular not only with homeowners and landscapers, but also with farmers and growers.

“What’s very exciting is the improvements in many native plants and working with the UConn team of Dr. Lubell and Dr. Brand with their NativeStar program we are only increasing the breadth and interest in native plants in Connecticut,” says Mark Sellew, president of Prides Corner Farm in Lebanon.

Native Stars

Currently, there are six NativeStar plants in the American Beauties Native Plants program, a national effort to promote native plant use. These plants are Myrica gale “Lowboy,” a male, low-growing, dense version of the sweetgale plant; Comptonia peregrina Blue Sea,” a cultivar of sweetfern with blue-green foliage; two cultivars of Corylus americana, Braveheart” and “Little Filly” hazelnut plants; Viburnum dentatum or “Plum Pudding,” a cultivar of arrowwood viburnum with burgundy fall foliage; and Viburnum cassinoides “Raisinette,”­ a compact cultivar of witherod viburnum. There are five other potential NativeStar plants currently in grower evaluation trials.

The first NativeStar’s plant on the market, “Lowboy,” will be hitting nurseries this fall. Others will likely be ready in fall 2022 and 2023.