Dakota gardener: The joy of discovery

Joe Zeleznik
North Dakota State University Extension
A man in Bismarck has been working with hickories and pecans for more than 35 years.

In years past, June was probably my biggest travel time.

At the end of the month, I would come home and re-introduce myself to my wife. This year, July’s been awfully busy. As the Johnny Cash sings, “I’ve been everywhere, man.”

I’m always on the lookout for unique tree species, no matter where I am. I’ve seen some exceptional trees this month. One was wild-grown, in its natural environment, while the others have been planted. I know this might sound weird, but I’m always excited at the thrill of discovery, even when other people are doing the discovering.

  • A single American linden in the Turtle Mountains, in the North Dakota Forest Service’s Hartley Boundary Primitive Area: In the North Dakota State Herbarium, curated at NDSU, American linden never has been recorded further west than Benson County. I hope we find more lindens in the Turtle Mountains in the next few years.
  • A large and beautiful northern catalpa tree in Grand Forks: Northern catalpa do OK in southern North Dakota, south of I-94. North of that line, northern catalpa tends to struggle. Nevertheless, there it was, looking great in someone’s yard. I love the blossoms on northern catalpa in the spring. They’re absolutely amazing.
  • Old Norway spruce trees and Douglas fir trees on farmsteads near Crystal, N.D.: While I’ve seen many Rocky Mountain Douglas fir around the state, this was one of the few times that I saw Norway spruce. The trees were big, perhaps 50 or 60 feet tall. I saw some young Norway spruce in Manning, N.D., as well. Exciting!

Of course, NDSU has its Woody Plant Improvement Program. Beyond that, we have a lot of other tree experimenters throughout the state, and they’re working with unique species and have found some amazing trees:

  • A burgundy bur oak: A few years ago, a friend planted a bunch of bur oak seedlings. One turned out to have burgundy-colored leaves. I saw it for the first time this month, and it was amazing! It was near sunset, so I didn’t get a great look at it, but the leaves were clearly not green. What a discovery!
  • Pecans: Yes! A man in Bismarck has been working with hickories and pecans for more than 35 years. Getting a crop from a species that’s native to the central and southern U.S. is awfully hard to do in Bismarck, N.D. Nevertheless, he’s had some success and even gave us a couple of pecan seedlings that we’re trying this year at the Myra Arboretum near Larimore. I can’t wait to see what happens.
  • Hazelnuts: Dan Johnson of Horace has been growing hazelnuts for more than 40 years. He breeds them and has produced many hybrids that produce great nut crops. His story is fascinating:

Are you an experimenter with trees? I wish you the best. Trees take a long time to mature, and they can be a very costly investment.

Believe it or not, my wife experiments with trees, too. Right now, we have a 4-foot avocado tree growing in a pot outside by the deck. She sprouted a seed several years ago and the tree looks great. It even flowered last year, but I really don’t expect we’ll get any fruit from it. But it’s a great experiment and a lot of fun! Through the years, I guess I’ve rubbed off on her.

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at