The Rutgers dogwood program was started in the 1970s by professor emeritus of plant biology Elwin Orton, a well-known breeder of woody ornamentals. Orton spent over 40 years breeding plants for improved qualities – first with hollies, then with dogwoods. Orton has developed an international reputation for his efforts in Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) plant breeding programs and has received over 20 awards from garden clubs, horticultural groups, nurseries, plant breeding societies, and landscaping associations for his outstanding work.
Reversing Bleak Outlook for Landscape Dogwoods
During the 1970s, native American dogwoods (Cornus florida) were under serious attack from insects and diseases and the future of landscape dogwoods was in jeopardy. Of concern was widespread infection of dogwood anthracnose that resulted in extensive damage to trees in both native woodlands and ornamental landscapes. Additionally, dogwood borer was causing serious problems to the health of the American dogwood.
To address these concerns, Orton had a plan to crossbreed the native American dogwood tree with the hardier, disease-resistant Asian species, Cornus kousa (commonly called Kousa dogwood), thus producing a new and unique hybrid tree. As a result of this strategy, along with plant breeding skills and patience, he was rewarded with a much-improved dogwood.
Orton tested the new plants extensively over nearly 20 years and the first series of Rutgers hybrid dogwoods was released in the early 1990s. They were marketed under the name of the Stellar Series®. Well known cultivars include Stellar Pink® dogwood and Constellation® dogwood that have been sold all over the world and continue to be used widely in landscape plantings today.
Orton’s rare hybrid combination of Cornus florida and Cornus kousa has seldomly been repeated by other breeders and is recognized as a new species named Cornus × rutgersensis. Further, Orton’s hybridization skills with another species of dogwood from the Pacific Northwestern U.S., Cornus nuttallii, that he crossed with Cornus kousa yielded another type of beautiful hybrid. This cross was also recognized as a new species and named in his honor, Cornus × elwinortonii. Venus® dogwood is a great example of this hybrid species.
New Generation of Rutgers Dogwood Breeding Innovation
Associate professor of plant biology Thomas Molnar now continues the dedicated work that began in the 1970s of breeding new dogwood cultivars. He joined the Rutgers Department of Plant Biology in 2004 and soon began working alongside Orton, conducting NJAES research. Molnar is currently responsible for Rutgers dogwood breeding program and has expanded the tree breeding vision to also include disease-resistant hazelnuts for commercial nut production and landscapes. His main focus is breeding high-value, unique plants with improved disease resistance and aesthetic value. Molnar is proud to carry on Orton’s legacy and conduct valuable research at Rutgers University.
Molnar’s newest release from the breeding program is ‘Rutpink’ Scarlet Fire® dogwood, which has grabbed much attention and even was awarded a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal award in 2022. Scarlet Fire® is a deep pink-to-fuchsia bracted dogwood recognized as a true color breakthrough, whose blooms contrast beautifully with its dark green foliage. This disease-resistant cultivar blooms from late May into early June, making it one of the latest-blooming dogwoods developed at Rutgers NJAES and a great addition to the landscape for those looking to extend the flowering season especially with a bright splash of color.