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updated: 8/16/2013 1:50 PM

Moving Picture: Arboretum specialist creates new plants

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  • Video: Moving Picture: Tree Expert

  • Joe Rothleutner, tree improvement specialist for the Morton Arboretum, documents his St. John's Wort plant data. White bags are kept over the newly pollinated plant, protecting it from pests and cross contamination.

       Joe Rothleutner, tree improvement specialist for the Morton Arboretum, documents his St. John's Wort plant data. White bags are kept over the newly pollinated plant, protecting it from pests and cross contamination.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Rothleutner prepares new cultivars using ploidy manipulation and chemical mutagenesis, a fancy way of saying he's speeding up and changing the DNA of the growing process.

       Joe Rothleutner prepares new cultivars using ploidy manipulation and chemical mutagenesis, a fancy way of saying he's speeding up and changing the DNA of the growing process.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Rothleutner inspects various small trees and shrubs.

       Joe Rothleutner inspects various small trees and shrubs.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Rothleutner starts the crossing in this St. John's Wort plant. First, the male part, or anther, is taken out, leaving the female part, or pistol. Rothleutner will then manually pollinate this female plant, which months from now will hopefully yield a seed capsule to be cleaned and sewn in the greenhouse, thus becoming a new cultivar.

       Joe Rothleutner starts the crossing in this St. John's Wort plant. First, the male part, or anther, is taken out, leaving the female part, or pistol. Rothleutner will then manually pollinate this female plant, which months from now will hopefully yield a seed capsule to be cleaned and sewn in the greenhouse, thus becoming a new cultivar.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Rothleutner leaves the humid fog room, which emits a constant stream of mist to keep leaves from losing water, and also helps the cultivars to grow roots.

       Joe Rothleutner leaves the humid fog room, which emits a constant stream of mist to keep leaves from losing water, and also helps the cultivars to grow roots.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Joe Rothleutner of Lombard looks at trees and shrubs differently than most of us, and that's a good thing.

As a tree improvement specialist at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, it's Rothleutner's job to help select, breed or cross trees and shrubs to develop new cultivars, or plants or groupings of plants selected for desirable characteristics for the Chicago area. It's an important task for a couple reasons.

First, it's people like Rothleutner who develop ornamentally different and unique plants -- the kind that attract plant lovers and gardeners and increase the diversity of our plantings.

Even more significantly, he and his colleagues at the arboretum and elsewhere provide alternatives to replace plants and trees that have been decimated by pests and disease, such as the elms the area lost decades ago and the ash trees that have been destroyed in recent years by the emerald ash borer.

Creating new plants is a difficult and painstaking job. It's not unusual to spend seven years developing a new shrub, or 12 to 15 years doing the same for a tree.

"We start with that one unique plant that we are really interested in and we start cloning it, doing cuttings, gratings or making copies of that genotype, or that specific set of genetic characteristics that make up that plant," he says.

Once he and his colleagues have successfully propagated a plant or tree, they work with a marketing group called Chicagoland Grows.

The group works in conjunction with the arboretum, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Ornamental Growers Association of Northern Illinois to convince nurseries to start growing the plants in significant numbers and to make them available to gardeners and others.

Rothleutner, 25, is still new to the job -- he's only been at it for a year -- but says he thinks he's found his calling.

He first became interested in breeding trees and plants while studying at the University of Maryland. "I knew that was the direction I wanted to go," he said.

Following an internship in woody plant breeding at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., he earned his master's degree in plant breeding genetics and biotechnology from Oregon State University.

Now he's made his way to the Morton Arboretum, one of the world's premier woody plant museums and facilities.

"This is exciting," he says, "and it's a job I really plan on sticking around a long time for."

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