The first thing you need to know about Dr. Richard T. Olsen is that he’s a plantsman. He lives, breathes and studies plants. He’s a scientist, a self-described plant geek with horticulture degrees from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia. His passion for and expertise in plant science led him to a position as a research geneticist in the urban tree breeding program in the Floral and Nursery Plant Research Unit (FNPRU) at the U.S. National Arboretum (USNA), where he is credited with reinvigorating the Arboretum’s urban tree program and with developing new woody ornamental breeding projects.

His studies have been widely published in peer-reviewed journals: Articles such as “Evaluating fertility of triploid clones of hypericum androsaemum L. for use as non-invasive landscape plants” and “Evaluating boxwood (Buxus spp.) susceptibility to Calonectria pseudonaviculata by inoculating cuttings from the National Boxwood Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum” speak to his science cred as well as his concern for practical use of plants in the landscape.

Photo courtesy of U.S. National Arboretum

He spent much of his tenure as Research Geneticist and Lead Scientist in the FNPRU developing superior landscape trees – those with enhanced pest and disease resistance as well as noninvasive traits. He provided welcome leadership to the Arboretum’s critical germplasm program.

All of this is to say: The man knows plants.

So when Olsen was appointed Director of the U.S. National Arboretum just a year ago, the green industry was the beneficiary.

“I had to make a decision that a lot of people do in their careers, which was, where can I do the most good?” Olsen explains. “I’m a decent scientist, but one of my strengths has always been to tell the story of science after the discovery, so I see myself as an advocate for environmental plant science, the nursery industry.”

A shared mission

It appears that Olsen is as superb a fit for leadership as he is for scientific research and discovery. He had excelled as a research scientist, beginning with his work as FNPRU’s lead scientist on the urban tree breeding program.

But within just a couple of years, Olsen was asked to lead the USNA’s germplasm program: “It’s the research program responsible for collecting, conserving, evaluating and distributing important plant genetic resources to the nursery industry, researchers and our peer institutes,” Olsen says. “Essentially, this is a program that collects underutilized plant species, or wild relatives of commonly cultivated ornamental plant species, so that we can introduce them into the cultivated gene pool, allowing researchers and the industry to utilize them in their own programs – or for immediate deployment in the industry for sale to the public.”

The Arboretum maintains a germplasm repository, one of 30 such USDA facilities nationwide. “Our focus,” Olsen says, “is on ornamental landscape plants. We have several hundred different genera that we work on. It’s the modern manifestation of the plant introduction program that goes back 118 years to David Fairchild, who set up the system to bring back valuable plant germplasm to the United States for distribution through this system. Fairchild was a famous USDA scientist and plant explorer.”

Olsen’s work served to unify the collection and curation efforts of the Woody Landscape Plant Germplasm Repository. But while he concentrated on the science, he also became increasingly involved in Arboretum leadership. He was asked to assist in the strategic planning process for the USNA, becoming one of just two staff members who were involved. The result is the Arboretum’s 20-page Strategic Plan 2013-2017, which outlines the direction of the institution. Strategic Goal No. 1 is to “ensure the national relevance of the U.S. National Arboretum research to the Agricultural Research Service, other scientific institutions, stakeholders and the public.”

“We are a collections-based research institute,” Olsen explains. “So what does that mean in the 21st century, when we have to relate to our stakeholders? Our stakeholders are essentially the nursery industry – the American landscape and green industry. That’s who we support. We exist for them and for the general public. At the end of the day, you want the general public to buy good plants, the improved plants – we do a lot with pest and disease resistance – and they’ll have better landscapes.”

Strengthening industry support

As the USNA’s Director, Olsen is keen to rejuvenate the Arboretum’s dedication to industry, primarily by providing the best science. “Because I come out of this industry, I didn’t feel like in the last 20 years that [the USNA] had a good connection with industry. That’s one of the things that has been important to me,” he states.

“The industry of the 1990s, and even when I started here [in 2006], was riding high, and there were arboreta and botanical gardens around the country that were forming; there were professorships and capital campaigns and endowments everywhere. But we were sort of out of the loop. Our strength at the National Arboretum is our plant genetic resources; our germplasm and the fact that we were consistently the place that people turned to for new plants, before others were doing it. And I’ll tell you one of our strengths at the National Arboretum: We support the nursery industry. Our mantra from day one has been: Collect and distribute.”

Olsen’s plan is to “get back to that mantra.” And that involves rethinking the Arboretum’s place in the collection, development and distribution of new plants. “That’s the pipeline,” he explains. “New plants are the pipeline. The industry understands the value of new plants now. You don’t have to impress on them why it would be important for them to consider a new plant. They get it – as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago where that wasn’t the case, but you had folks in the ensuing decades like Dr. J.C. Raulston at NC State, and Dr. Michael Dirr in Georgia, and there were others in other parts of the country who were really promoting the fact that we had all this great material at our disposal, and we weren’t using it. So we kind of got away from that.

“Way back when,” he continues, “we were one of the few breeding programs around. We were breeding from Day 1, but really, up until the 80s there weren’t a lot of breeding programs. The National Arboretum dominated. It was considered long-term, high-risk research that the horticulture departments had not really picked up on woody breeding. There were a few, like Harold Pellett’s program, that morphed into the Landscape Plant Development Center. But it was not nearly as pervasive as it is now.”

It’s a circle of demand and supply – eager for the next new thing, the gardening public demands new plants. And eager to meet that demand, breeders toil to develop and market the next best seller. It’s a formula fraught with risk, and those breeding programs must show a return on investment in order to survive and thrive. How many can support the science – the long-term research – necessary for a successful introduction? It’s a process to which the Arboretum is ready, willing and able to contribute.

Part of the pipeline

It takes a team to create a successful new plant, and it takes more than what Olsen calls “tweaking.” It also means making the USNA a critical part of the process – moving it up the pipeline, as Olsen puts it.

“We need better plants; there’s always tweaking. But the point of all this is, I don’t want the National Arboretum programs to be just tweakers. I want our programs to be cutting edge. And that cutting edge may not lead to anything in terms of fruition for many, many years because our goal is to do high-risk, long-term research that produces the game changers.”

Photos iStock unless otherwise noted.

Using crape myrtle as an example, Olsen explains:

“Most of the crape myrtles in the United States are derived from USNA introductions and germplasm. And that was the result of Don Egolf ‘s work, and subsequently that of his successors. Don Egolf started in the 50s, and his goal was to produce these powdery mildew-resistant, cold-hardy forms. His first crop was done in the late 50s; his first introductions were done in the late 60s, I believe, and early 70s. But his real breakthrough, with regard to dwarf crape myrtles, wasn’t until the 1990s. He had passed away by then.

“That was nearly 40 years of breeding efforts to get to what we know as Pokomoke crape myrtle,” Olsen continues. “From there, folks like Dr. Dirr ran with it and were able to do the open-pollinated, mass selection of seed off of these dwarf hybrids. But to get to the point that enabled Dirr and the industry to run with that technology was 40 years.

“Essentially, no nursery business or any university can do that. But that’s one of the values of these programs at the USDA.”

So, Olsen says, “We have to consider moving up the pipeline. When we were the only game in town breeding, we could do all the work. From the early prebreeding and screening of the plants that we would then choose to be our parents in our programs, all the way to the initial crosses, the advance generation of crosses, and then introduction of a final product, which was an improved cultivar.

“Well, we need to look at the industry and say, what can the industry do, and what is it that we can do, and then how do we work together so that we have a synergy to be more productive and efficient?

“And I think, for us at the National Arboretum, that means moving us back up the pipeline with regard to plant introduction. So we’re getting further upstream from the actual introduction, and we do the science behind the prebreeding. We do the initial genetic improvement, and we then partner with the industry to produce the final product. And then we move on back to the science. Let the industry focus on growing out the final populations, identifying the plants that fit into their production schedules, the landscape and all the other traits we were looking for, which are the pest or disease tolerance, cold hardiness. And then get it to market faster.”

What’s next?

The Arboretum’s crape myrtle work, Olsen says, has been a great program. But where does the facility go from here? “I’ll share with you another objective,” he says. “This is under an objective called ‘Emphasize accessibility of the U.S. National Arboretum research plant collections and staff.’ We really want to expand and diversify the arboretum’s research, education and garden portfolios, to better reflect the needs of stakeholders and invite critique of all programs to assess currency and relevancy.

“I’m going to be moving toward creating a program where we have a review of the National Arboretum’s program – a direct review – by industry members and associated fields of discipline,” Olsen explains. “To really ask the hard questions, as to where we should be going.” The Arboretum and its staff is charged with the mission to “expand opportunities in the area of plant breeding, including reevaluating both current ornamental plant breeding programs and legacy breeding efforts as to their possible visibility and marketability to the nursery industry.”

Olsen adds, “Implicit in that is: Between the currency, relevancy and legacy, we need to know are we doing the right thing. Or have we continued programs because they are legacy programs that are having diminished impact? It’s time to look at the next game-changer and say, we’ve done crape myrtle, what’s next?”

For the relative short term, that may be boxwood.

“We’ve created a boxwood breeding program to address the need of dealing with the presence and spread of boxwood blight in the nursery industry,” Olsen outlines. “This is particularly devastating: For years we considered boxwood as an indestructible, bread-and-butter item of the industry. We pretty much grew two varieties: giant American boxwood and the dwarf English.” It was cold-hardy, it was essentially deer-resistant: “Plus, it was something that landscapers could pronounce and understand, designers knew, and boxwood has a nostalgia, thanks to our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant background in the United States – it was a no-brainer, right?

“And then, wham! Boxwood blight hit and really took the wind out of what was then about a $110 million a year part of the industry,” he continues. “So we’re having to recreate all the science around boxwood. We never knew how their pollination systems work; we had to learn how this fungus interacted with boxwood; we had to understand what boxwood we had. And so we’ve got a great program right now on boxwood. The No. 1 thing that’s really great for a scientist is to have a concrete problem.

“Again, we don’t want to get into this tweaking program,” Olsen continues, “where we say, wouldn’t it be nice if this plant was a slightly different shade of blue? Or a different shade of red? That’s not a game-changer; anybody can do that through simple genetics and breeding and persistence. But we need the game-changers, which tend to be things that revolve around pest and disease tolerance that the industry can’t do.”

What the industry can do is to take Olsen at his word, and to take full advantage of the opportunity to partner with the United States National Arboretum. There’s a wealth of science to share, and with an advocate like Dr. Richard T. Olsen, there can be a new age of plant breeding and introductions.


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