Long known for its outstanding research on dogwood species — and its exceptional dogwood introductions — Rutgers has developed a stunning new hardy, deep pink dogwood called Scarlet Fire. It achieves the brilliant color associated with the native Cornus florida species that has been plagued by blight in the hardier Cornus kousa, an Asian species that is resistant to most diseases but lacked some of the color that made the native species so attractive. Sold in limited quantities last spring, the Scarlet Fire dogwood will be widely available for the first time in 2017 through mail order from several nurseries across the country.
Tom Molnar, a plant biologist who oversees the ornamental tree breeding program for the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, took over the project to develop a pink Asian dogwood tree about a decade ago from retired plant biologist Elwin Orton, who had been working on the breeding program for decades. Orton knew the landscape industry was searching for a tree to replace the native dogwood that was being ravaged by insects and disease.
“The desire was to get something as tough as the Asian dogwood with that great pink color,” Molnar said.
He tested genetic combinations that built on the previous generations of work of Orton, crossing trees that produced light pink flowers and then grew out thousands of plants until he found the desired brightness.
“I was very lucky, he gave me all these parents to work with through his decades of work and one of the crosses we made gave us this really bright color,’’ Molnar said. “When we first saw it flower we were all blown away. It was a breakthrough color.”
Scarlet Fire stands out in the landscape for its timing and shade of pink. The dogwood flowers toward the end of May and early in June, later in the season than most flowering trees. Molnar said he chose the name Scarlet to honor Rutgers 250th anniversary and Fire for the hue of the flower.
“It gives this new splash of color we have never seen before on the landscape,’’ Molnar said. “At its peak it’s close to a fuchsia color. What is most pleasing about it is that from a distance it reflects light and you see this really brilliant splash of pink.”
The Scarlet Fire has a similar range as the native dogwood, Molnar said. It can grow in zones 5 through 8, as far south as Florida, north to New Jersey into Connecticut and as far west as central Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“This is a tougher plant that takes the heat and drought better and is resistant to different diseases,’’ Molnar said. “It’s the first of its kind with such color and we are hoping it becomes very popular when everyone sees it.”