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Nurturing growth: Las Cruces professor sees success with Mesa Glow maple tree

New Mexico State University researcher Rolston St. Hilaire has been dedicated to capturing the vibrant color and drought tolerance of a certain maple tree for 20 years.

The Mesa Glow maple is now expanding its roots in not just caliche soil but also in the hearts of those who are attracted to the unique New Mexico creation, thanks to St. Hilaire and his research. With the help of NMSU’s Arrowhead Center, St. Hilaire was able to patent the tree, three of which now grace the entrance of Arrowhead Park.

“People who work on trees are lucky if we release one tree cultivar in our lifetime,” St. Hilaire said. “Sometimes work is started from other scientists’ projects and worked on over several generations. To get it done within my lifetime, I partnered with private industry.”

St. Hilaire, head of the Plant and Environmental Sciences department at the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, is also interim head of the Extension Plant Sciences Department and a Regents professor. He first worked with maple trees while at Iowa State University. However, it was a local maple, the Bigtooth, which struck him with its extraordinary beauty and location high in the Organ Mountains.

While the tree’s fall colors are gorgeously red, the Bigtooth doesn’t stand as upright as some of its tree cousins, a crucial need for industry interest. Traditional clonal propagation wasn’t working either.

“Less than 10 percent of the cuttings would root,” said St. Hilaire, explaining how he needed a clone instead of offspring from seeds. “Seed are genetically diverse, so you don’t get the same material.”

It was cultivating the plant through meticulous work in a laboratory with tissue cultures that produced a stable plant. St. Hilaire published his results and later presented them at a conference, piquing the interest of a scout from Oregon-based wholesale tree grower J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. The scout expressed curiosity for the new tree, but he also knew that doing tissue cultures was a stretch for the wholesaler, which grafts trees to rootstocks to create product.

St. Hilaire was undaunted and went to Arrowhead Center to get help with a patent for his plant.

“The patent document was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “The patent protects the plant, so that it cannot be grown by others without express permission. Once I started discussing patents and intellectual property, Arrowhead helped to connect me with the university patent lawyer, working one-on-one with him.”

Kathryn Hansen, director of Arrowhead Center, said Arrowhead helps NMSU’s faculty take research done in campus labs to build a company or product that might be seen in stores, or in local nurseries.

“Arrowhead Center focuses on intricacies of tech commercialization that a faculty member may not have experience in,” she said. “Dr. St. Hilaire had an exceptional product and had forged connections in industry. Our team was able to build on that work to move closer to a strong market position. We have the ability to navigate what it takes to establish a beneficial agreement with NMSU and the licensing of their research or their products.”

Since Mesa Glow’s launch in 2017, St. Hilaire has begun the ramp-up process for his product. About 1,000 plants are produced each season, with more expected on the market within three years. Marketing the trees is organic.

“What happens is that they are planted, and the trees catch the eyes of people who then find out more and seek them out specifically for planting,” he said. “They’ve done well in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and in Colorado. We already have a backlog that we’re trying to fill. It might take another six to 10 years to see how well they truly do. All indicators are that they will be popular. I’m grateful for J. Frank Schmidt who help me test trees in different environments and help me market them.”

One buyer is Arrowhead Center. Growth of Arrowhead Park on the NMSU campus is accelerating, so monument signage for key entrances was developed, with Phase 1 now complete at Wells and Arrowhead Drive. The sign guiding visitors and staff to Arrowhead Park is framed with Mesa Glow maples.

“We wanted to create a stronger identity for Arrowhead Park, so we worked with NMSU’s facilities department and the university architect on the new signage,” said Wayne Savage, executive director of Arrowhead Park. “We need to add much to the park in terms of green canopy, and how better to do that than with our own NMSU intellectual property, and a tree that will be beautiful spring, summer and fall.”

Three Mesa Glow maples were planted at the Arrowhead Drive sign location, and more will be added in the months and years ahead along the length of the street’s median.

“While the IP license is in Oregon, we were able to buy ours from a local nursery,” Savage said. “All our maple trees at Arrowhead Park will be from Trees of Corrales in Corrales, New Mexico, but will have originally been developed from just on the other side of campus.”

Information from NMSU