Garden Musings · Shrubs · Trees

Plant Stories of Michael Yanny

I am a certifiable plant nerd. I am grateful for plant breeders who work diligently to bring me new plants that thrill my green thumbs every spring. Although I knew it was time consuming work, I did not have the proper appreciation of the time and effort that goes into bringing new and improved trees and shrubs to our favorite garden centers.

I recently attended the iLandscape show and was lucky, or maybe smart, enough to find myself in a presentation given by Michael Yanny. With wit and the wisdom from years of experience making new plants, he told stories of some of his plants and became one of my horticultural heroes.

“Most new plants just happen. It is just recognizing improvements. Anyone can find new plants; the key is to recognize improvements,” began Yanny. His humility caused the audience to connect with him instantly. But we all knew while it may be relatively easy to spot a new plant, it is another matter entirely to bring it to market.

Many of Yanny’s projects take decades to complete, and he has hundreds of projects in various stages of development. Sometimes, a project continues ten years with nothing to show it. Such is the life of a plant propagator who works with seedlings, and most of his plants originate from seedling selection. Each seed is genetically different and must be grown on for years to observe its characteristics. Only superior seedlings worthy of being cloned are selected.

One of his current projects is developing a cultivar of Euonymus atropurpurea with better fall color and disease resistance. He chose 20 to 25 seedlings out of 300 to grow on for further evaluation. Exceptional seedlings were then cloned to have a larger number of cultivars to study. This project continues.

Aesculus glabra ‘J.N. Select’, Early Glow™ Ohio Buckeye is one of his projects you may want to include in your landscape. It grows 35 feet tall and wide, and is the first tree to show color in the fall. Its orange-red to fiery red foliage lifts the curtain on autumn’s show in mid-September. It also demonstrates superior resistance to leaf blotch and leaf scorch, and it bears very few nuts – only a handful from each tree – so maintenance to clean them up is eliminated.

The story of Early Glow™ Ohio Buckeye began in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Yanny and a friend drove by a tree with amazing fall color growing in a backyard on their way to work. In the early 1980’s, he stopped to collect some of its nuts and found there weren’t any under the tree. He wondered if the homeowner had already raked them. When the homeowner reported the tree had never produced nuts, he knew he was on to something. Yanny took cuttings of the tree that he grafted in 1983. They were informally named Sunset.

When he bought the rights to all the plants he developed at Johnson’s Nursery – a third generation, family-owned nursery where Yanny worked for many years – he took it to the Chicagoland Grows program and the name was changed to Early Glow™. (Sunset had already been taken by another grower.) After more than thirty years, Early Glow™ Ohio Buckeye was born and is now available in limited quantities. It will take some time to grow large numbers of this winner.

Malus sargentii ‘Select A’ pp12621, Firebird® Crabapple is another one of Yanny’s projects. If his Ohio buckeye is too tall to fit in your garden, consider this one. Malus sargentii Firebird® grows eight feet tall and twelve feet wide, perfect for smaller yards. Red buds open to pure white flowers a bit later than other crabapples. It boasts a spectacular display of red fruit throughout the winter. Its berries are harder than those on other cultivars so birds fly by until other food sources are depleted. This crabapple is also highly resistant to all the major ailments that often infect other varieties.

The story of the Firebird® crabapple began during an all-time record low temperature in Milwaukee in 1978. The temperature was 33 below zero with a wind chill of minus 70 degrees. Most Sargent crabapples less than two inches in caliper in the area were devastated during this winter. Yanny, with all the hubris of a recent college graduate, started working at Johnson’s Nursery in 1980 to solve the problem of hardiness.

He observed only younger trees were damaged or killed and theorized the trees were not “balanced out”. Crabapples were typically grafted on regular eating apple rootstock at that time. Yanny believed there was too much push, or energy, from vigorous root stock for the small tops to prepare for winter effectively.

Yanny thought they should grow on their own roots and gave it a try. He believed crabapples might be apomictic (produce seedlings genetically identical to parent) and he planted crops of seedlings in 1980, 1981 and 1982. In 1981, the seedlings were, in fact, apomictic. But in 1980 and 1982, they were not. “They were a bunch of mutts,” Yanny reported.

The crop of 700 seedlings planted in 1982 was destroyed. But twenty from the first batch of 300 seedlings were saved because he suspected they would bloom with pink flowers. The good news was they did bloom in pink; the bad news was by August, they all developed terrible apple scab.

Ten to twelve others were saved from the 1980 crop because they produced tiny red fruit and were resistant to apple scab. Three of these fruited every year. (Malus sargentii was known for fruiting every other year.) The best one of these three became Firebird®.

What started as an increased hardiness project became the hunt for a disease-resistant crabapple with abundant and persistent red fruit. Sometimes propagators guide plant characteristics; sometimes plants guide propagators if they, like Yanny, are willing to pay attention.

Malus saregntii Firebird® has been available for several years and is now offered by many garden centers.

I was especially absorbed in the story of Viburnum carlesii ‘J.N. Select A’, Spice Island™ Koreanspice Viburnum. Viburnum carlesii is one of my favorite spring-blooming shrubs. Its flowers fill the air with sweet perfume.

The charming pink buds of Spice Island™ open to extremely fragrant, white flowers later than V. carlessii and its other cultivars, displaying its flowers against unfurled dark green foliage. Spice Island grows four to five feet tall and wide, and it sports deep wine red foliage in fall.

Its story began in the 1980’s when Yanny was having a great deal of difficulty growing Viburnum carlesii from cuttings. He began propagating them by seed with much greater success. Using the production fields, he grew, observed, evaluated, and selected seedlings and then grew, observed, evaluated, and selected seedlings looking for plants better than those already on the market. After many years, he perfected Viburnum carlesii Spice Island™.

Yanny’s fascinating stories went on and on. Carpinus caroliniana ‘J.N. Upright’, Firespire® Musclewood was selected from a row of two to three hundred seedlings because of its more robust vigor and outstanding orange-red fall color.

Its story also began in the early 1980’s. When Yanny was first hired at Johnson’s Nursery, he was given freedom to propagate his choice of plants. He started selecting seeds of musclewood trees with good fall color which, at the time, was only 5 to 10% of them. After four years, he had a thousand plants in the field. “I just propagated what I liked not considering what customers wanted,” said Yanny with smile, “I thought if I liked it, they would like it too.” That is when management at Johnson’s Nursery gave him a quota.

But now, with a thousand plants in the field, Yanny had lots of plants to choose from. Over the next thirty five years his percentages of beautiful orangey-red fall color increased – first to  25%, then 50%, 60%, until over 80% had spectacular fall color.

Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘J.N. Select A’, Ping Pong™ Buttonbush grew from seed he collected with permission at the Chicago Botanic Garden. A pollinator magnet, this is a great plant for a moist, sunny site.

Or how about Cornus racemosa x amomum ‘J.N. Red Stem’, Irish Setter™ dogwood? It was chosen by Yanny for its resistance to Septoria leaf spot – an annoying problem for this otherwise superior landscape shrub. It offers white flowers in spring, beautiful fall color, brilliant red stems in winter, and attractive, spot-free foliage in summer.

All these and many other plants are discovered and propagated by people who, like Michael Yanny, love playing with plants. They work hard to bring us improved cultivars for our landscapes. I am even more thankful after hearing Yanny’s stories. How about you? Garden with me!

A special thank you to Michael Yanny who took time after the show to give me even more information about his plants and for the photos to use in this post. Plant people are the best!

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