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Nursery owner last of a growing breed

Introduced new trees, shrubs to Manitoba landscape

Wilbert Ronald arranges the Amber Jubilee shrubs, named in honour of Queen Elizabeth's jubilee.


Wilbert Ronald arranges the Amber Jubilee shrubs, named in honour of Queen Elizabeth's jubilee.

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- The consequences from cuts to science take years to surface.

But then they surface.

Nearly 200 Shubert cherry trees were cut down in Linden Woods parks and boulevards last year due to an unstoppable, sinisterly named disease called black knot.

Ditto bronze leaf disease that wiped out the Swedish columnar poplar. And what happened to all those big, weeping birch trees you used to see? They weep no more. Bronze birch borer.

Meanwhile, emerald ash borer -- believed to have landed in Detroit on a ship carrying cargo from China -- is devastating Minnesota's ash trees and heading our way. The most insidious of all, Dutch elm disease, travelled up the Red River 40 years ago, wiping out every American elm tree in sight, slowed only by the fight waged by Winnipeg.

The dozen or so horticulture plant scientists who used to work in Manitoba might not have prevented those diseases, but they sure would have helped. The University of Manitoba ended its horticulture program decades ago. In 2010, the federal government terminated the horticulture program founded 80 years ago at the Morden Research Centre.

The last man standing is Wilbert Ronald of Jeffries Nurseries, on the Trans-Canada Highway just east of Portage la Prairie. Jeffries is the only nursery practising plant breeding on any scale in Manitoba. Ronald has developed more than a dozen new trees and shrubs suitable for Manitoba's climate.

"I think Wilbert Ronald's contribution to horticulture in Manitoba is second to none," said Chad Labbe, vice-president of Shelmerdine Garden Centre in Winnipeg. "Our landscape will be forever changed because of his contribution."

Ronald, 69, admits he gets a kick out of driving around and seeing trees he introduced growing in parks and private yards, both at home and around the world. His Northern Treasure ash grows across from Silver City cinemas near Polo Park, for example.

A recent collaboration with Parkland Nurseries in Red Deer, Alta., resulted in his most recent release, the Parkland Pillar. It's a birch tree shaped like a long flame. "We're looking for columnar trees, smaller trees that fit smaller lot sizes," Ronald explained. About 20,000 Parkland Pillars have just been released for growth in nurseries across North America.

A PhD graduate in plant science from the U of M, Ronald worked in horticulture at the Morden Research Station before leaving in 1982 to take over Jeffries Nurseries. Jeffries devotes 10 to 15 per cent of its time and resources to plant breeding and tries to put out a new tree or shrub every year. Is it worth the time and money?

"You'd never get rich on the royalties," Ronald confides. "The biggest thing is it draws value to the rest of the business."

Ronald breeds trees against disease, insects and for hardiness in northern climes. He searches for improved forms and fall colours. He also tries to breed trees that shed fewer seeds. "The Manitoba maple is the worst weed tree. It seeds everywhere," Ronald said.

A recent Ronald introduction is the first sugar maple capable of withstanding Manitoba's climate. You can tap maple syrup from this tree in your backyard. It's called the Lord Selkirk sugar maple, in honour of the year it was developed, 2012, the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Settlers.

A shrub released by Ronald around the same time is the Amber Jubilee ninebark, named in honour of Queen Elizabeth's 60th anniversary. More than 100,000 of the colourful shrub have already been sold in North America and Europe. During his career, Ronald has won awards in Canada and the United States. Some of his other introductions include Harvest Gold linden, Golden Cascade linden, Early Gold pear and Flowering crabapple. Ronald is assisted by his entire family, including his wife, Sharon.

A tour of Jeffries Nurseries includes its 45-acre yard, and 65-acre tree farm with trees of all different kinds and states of health. "All the trees that don't do well, that grow crooked, for example, wind up in the wood pile," he said. The good ones move on to the next round of development.

Jeffries does some retail sales in trees, shrubs and perennials but mostly sells wholesale across Western Canada and a bit into the U.S. A large part of its business is to civic governments. Of about 2,000 trees The City of Winnipeg plants per year as infill to replace damaged or diseased trees, about 800 come from Jeffries. Developers are another big market. Waverley West developers are planting 2,000 to 3,000 trees per year, about 1,000 of which are from Jeffries.

"We need people like him out there developing cultivars for the Prairies," said Carla Hrycyna, co-owner of St. Mary's Garden Centre. "We need plants that can take the severities from drought to flood, from our winters to summers."

Ronald also has a little scoop. He's three years away from introducing an elm resistant to Dutch elm disease. It's not the first in Manitoba, and it can't help the majestic trees being felled by disease now. But it will surely help against future disease.

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