Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands lie below an orchard atop Bayfield Hill, where, for a short time this summer, ripe apple trees were accompanied by 100 potted poplars. The young poplars glowed bright green as they waited to be bought.
The pastors, scientists, and staff at Hauser Superior View Farm have predicted the future of poplars like new parents wondering how their children might one day change the world. Within a week, each of the lively trees decorated with paper tags that read “InnovaTree” sold out.
“We’re really excited about the potential uses for this tree,” said Jeff Jackson, an instructor at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “They’re sold out by 2023. Next year, Hauser’s will sell about 500 InnovaTrees. I think other nurseries will start offering them for sale as well.”
The InnovaTree is a new hybrid developed after decades of breeding research conducted by the Institute in Duluth. When she began her research in the 1990s, there was a shortage of tree pulp needed to make paper. But as the need for pulp decreased over time, the research turned to reducing pollution.
InnovaTree ultimately proved to be excellent at cleaning up contamination, disease resistance and rapid growth, Jackson said. This year, the institute partnered with Hauser’s Superior View Farm in Bayfield and officially brought the InnovaTree to market.
“This tree was designed for the climate we have in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Jackson said. “It was built for the upper Midwest.”
Jackson recently appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to discuss the development of the InnovaTree and its potential uses.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kate Archer Kent: The innova tree is a hybrid between two species of poplar: eastern cottonwood and black poplar. Why did scientists use only the genus Poplar to develop the innova tree?
Jeff Jackson: Poplar trees are naturally one of the fastest growing trees in our climate zone. Black poplar trees can grow easily on poor quality farmland, while many other tree species cannot. This means that InnovaTree can be bred for industrial purposes such as the manufacture of pulp, paper and wood products.
KK: Another poplar, the white poplar, is “banned” by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources because of its potential to become invasive in our area. One of the species used at InnovaTree is not native to Wisconsin. Does this increase the chance of InnovaTree becoming invasive?
GG: of course not. This is something I take very seriously. Black poplar and eastern cottonwood poplar have been grown in the United States for more than 75 years. There is no recorded evidence that they have become invasive, spreading or depleting the soil of essential chemicals and minerals.
The InnovaTree does not suck or grow from roots like native aspen trees do. The InnovaTree produces pollen because it is a male tree. Only female trees produce those delicate seeds that people see floating in the air during spring.
KK: Is the InnovaTree genetically modified?
GG: No, InnovaTree is not GMO. The scientists used traditional selective breeding techniques. It’s the same way Minnesota apples were developed: without genetic modification.
KK: What is unique about how InnovaTree works within the environment?
GG: The InnovaTree shows huge potential to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in part because of its rapid growth. It grows between 5 and 8 feet annually, which is 64 percent faster than other hybrid poplars on the market.
It also absorbs a lot of water, making it ideal for a process called “phytoremediation.” This is a fancy term for “cleaning up pollution from soil and water”. For example, if you plant a wide area of InnovaTree between a landfill and a river, the trees will intercept and absorb toxins in the water as it flows down the hill and into the river.
Kk: What happens to the toxins they absorb?
GG: It depends on the toxins they are pulling into their system. Some of the chemicals will be drawn up by the tree and expelled from the leaves into the atmosphere completely unchanged. This process dilutes toxins and removes them from the toxic site. Other chemicals can be metabolized by the tree, broken down, and rendered harmless. When the tree absorbs heavy metals, they will remain in the tree.
KK: How can people benefit from InnovaTree?
GG: We have a potential collaboration with a startup that wants to use our trees to pull precious metals from the soil in a process called “phytomining.”
Farm windbreaks are also a great InnovaTree app. We’re working with people at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to research windbreaks and other agroforestry practices by planting demonstration plots.
InnovaTree also provides a quick shade for homeowners and can be a great privacy screen. We have collaborators with the USDA Forest Service who use our hybrid poplars for urban brownfield restoration as well as urban reforestation.