BAYFIELD COUNTY, Wis. — It took nearly 30 years, but researchers based at the University of Minnesota Duluth have bred a new variety of tree with an already lengthy list of ways it can be used — ranging from expediting shade in residential neighborhoods to quickly removing toxins from the soil.

The tree variety, InnovaTree, is born of cross-pollinating native Minnesota cottonwood and European poplar. It grows up to 8 feet per year — 64% faster than other commercial trees — and tops out at about 75 feet tall.

The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) hosted the commercial launch of its InnovaTree last week at Hauser's Superior View Farm in Bayfield County. Dozens of potted trees, the first available to the public, lined a stage. Even the director of NRRI, an applied research organization, seemed surprised by the trees' ample height — some up to 5 feet tall — given their relative youth.

"These are two months old, holy smokes," Rolf Webert said .

The trees are expected to be used in residential landscaping, wildlife conservation and on marginal farmland — but that's just the beginning, Webert said.

"What you're seeing today is just the tip of the iceberg as we introduce this species," he said. "I guess my point is, stay tuned."

The NRRI began experimenting with the hybrid trees in 1996, and the InnovaTree is considered the best variety from the thousands of other varieties that were developed and tested for disease resistance, rate of growth and how they handle drought conditions.

"It's a slow process," Webert said. "That's why it's taken 30 years — because forests are on a different time scale."

InnovaTrees, a portmanteau of "innovative trees," was the winning name in an internal contest at the NRRI. There are five other varieties in line to be rolled out, likely one in the next year that is an improved native Eastern cottonwood, according to Jeff Jackson, extension educator at the NRRI.

InnovaTrees, the first variety released, are seedless and don't shed cotton. They have heart-shaped leaves that turn yellow in the fall. The trees are good for shade, wildlife habitats, firewood and removing pollutants from the ground and water. They need full sun and well-drained soil.

Dane Hauser, the fifth-generation owner of the family farm, said he got 100 cuttings from the NRRI about three years ago. He started them in his greenhouse in the spring before planting them on his property in the fall. Earlier this year he took more cuttings back to the greenhouse to continue the process.

His nursery is the only place where the trees are currently for sale for $19.99 — and his stock was nearly depleted within days. More nurseries are expected to have the trees by spring 2024.

"These things grow like weeds," said Hauser. "They're very environmentally tolerant. I guess the biggest thing is hydration. You don't want to let them get too dry or else they will wilt fast."

The NRRI has more than 1,600 new varieties of poplar in development, which they will do extensive testing on to find superior characteristics.

Many will be designated for special applications, such as carbon sequestration, pollution cleanup and managing increased stormwater discharge that comes with climate change, according to John DuPlissis, Forest and Land Research group leader.

The InnovaTree "was selected for fast growth," Webert said. "The other attributes that these other varieties might have are exciting. And we're learning."