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Article updated: 8/16/2013 1:50 PM

Moving Picture: Arboretum specialist creates new plants

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By Daniel White

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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