Profit may flow from Summer Cascade
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Profit may flow from Summer Cascade

A 'seedling variant' became a marketable nursery plant for John Allen (right) and his father, Danny, both N.C. State alumni. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

Ornate letter "M"
ost people would have destroyed the bushy plant John Allen found growing among river birches at the nursery he and his father operate in Northern Iredell County.

After all, the plant clearly was not a typical river birch. The plant, Allen recalls, looked more like a bush than a tree. It formed a mound, perhaps 4 feet by 4 feet, while the surrounding river birches were approaching 20 feet in height.

“Most people would probably have plowed it under,” says Dr. Tom Ranney, professor of Horticultural Science stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Research and Extension Center at Fletcher. “John was astute enough to set it aside and realize it might have merit.”

Indeed, that bushy mound Allen noticed in 1996 turned out to be an unusual weeping form of river birch. And now, nearly a decade later, it has a name and a commercial future in the nursery business. And it appears Allen’s decision to refrain from destroying the unusual plant will benefit not only his nursery but the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the nursery industry generally.

“We kept it and planted it out,” Allen says. “We got to discussing it with different people. I thought it was dwarf and weeping.”

Allen took cuttings from the original plant and grew some more. Then he contacted Ranney, who he knew was interested in river birches, and showed the plants to him. Ranney took some of the plants back to Fletcher with him and started growing them there. He found the plant could be trained to grow upright, and that it wasn’t a dwarf.

But is was a weeping form, which is highly unusual among river birches. Ranney says there are some European river birches with a weeping form, but they don’t grow well in the Southern United States. The plant in the Allen nursery was what Ranney calls a “seedling variant,” a mutation.

One thing led to another, and with Ranney’s help, Allen decided to patent the plant and try to introduce it to the nursery industry. The plant is now known as Summer Cascade, and nurseries around the country have been licensed to grow it. It should start appearing in garden centers in the next year or so, Allen says.

Ranney thinks Summer Cascade has a bright future. If untrained, Summer Cascade forms a mounded shrub or small tree. The original untrained plant, now about 10 years old, is 6 feet tall and 10 feet wide. When staked or trained, however, Summer Cascade can be grown as a tree to an undetermined height. Ranney thinks it could reach as high as 60 feet.

And Summer Cascade grows fast. A 6- to 8-feet-tall branched tree can be produced in one growing season from a rooted cutting. Summer Cascade is also adaptable and tolerates a range of growing conditions, including high temperatures and wet soils. It’s expected to have excellent pest resistance and is easy to propagate.

Not bad for a plant that save for Allen’s instincts could just as easily have been plowed into oblivion.

“John is very keen about plants,” says Ranney. “He’s located quite a number of intriguing plants.”

For his part, Allen credits Horticultural Science professors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with teaching him to appreciate unusual plants. Allen holds a degree in science education from North Carolina State University, but he minored in horticulture. That minor turned out to be handy when he joined his father, Danny, who is also an N.C. State grad, with a degree in agronomy, in operating Shiloh Nursery near Harmony. The Allens also raise tobacco and grain.

Allen credits teachers like Bryce Lane and the late J.C. Raulston with teaching him to notice and appreciate plants that are out of the ordinary.

“You could tell it was genetically different,” he says of Summer Cascade. “That’s one of the things you learn, that things that are different make good plants.”

The Allens have decided to split the royalties they will receive from nurseries that have been licensed to grow Summer Cascade, with half going to Ranney’s plant breeding program.

“Extension professors like Dr. [Ted] Bilderback and Dick Bir came out in the mid ’80s and talked to dad about getting started in the nursery business,” John Allen explains.

Splitting Summer Cascade royalties is “a way to try to give something back and help out the industry in general,” he adds.

—Dave Caldwell

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