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Plum tree star of fruit research station's anniversary

October 15, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. -- Most of the plums produced by the Bluebyrd plum tree near the main entrance to the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville are eaten by the birds, according to director Michael Glenn.

And so it likely will be for the new Orablue plum tree that was planted next to the Bluebyrd in honor of the late Erma Ora Byrd, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd's wife of nearly 69 years.

Ten years after the longtime West Virginia Democratic lawmaker attended the planting of the Bluebyrd tree named in his honor, Fruit Research Station staff on Thursday announced the release of the Orablue in conjunction with the facility's 30th anniversary celebration.

Sen. Byrd, who was credited for bringing the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center to Jefferson County in the late 1970s, did not return for the dedication, but Carol Wallace, the Senator's projects director in Washington D.C., recited the Joyce Kilmer poem "Trees" that Byrd had read at the 20th anniversary.

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Wallace said the senator was "deeply touched" by the decision to name the new plum tree in honor of his wife and reminded those gathered that her boss had first raised the idea of bringing the research center to West Virginia in 1963.

While first identified in 1970 by Harold W. Fogle at the USDA's Beltsville, Md., agricultural research center, the Orablue's potential in what is now a growing market for plums was recognized by Agriculture Research Service (ARS) horticulturist Ralph Scorza.

"Scorza carried it through," Glenn said in an interview after the planting ceremony for an Orablue tree.

The Orablue plum's amber flesh has an excellent flavor and good size and color, according to Scorza, who also noted the fruit's benefits for digestion and bone health.

"This plum remained in the queue biding its time," Scorza said.

"It has proven itself and now its time has come."

Scorza said it was only fitting that that the two plum varieties named in honor of the Byrds be planted together at the station, given the senator's strong support for ongoing work at the research center.

Dariusz Swietlik, area Director of the ARS' North Atlantic Area, and a former Fruit Research Station director also lauded Byrd's "great support."

"We're all grateful to him," Swietlik said.

Glenn noted that a new plum variety takes several years to develop because the fruit's trees typically take three to seven years of growth from seed before flowering and then it can take 15 to 30 years of breeding. Researchers now are close to developing pitless peaches and plums, Glenn said.

Since opening 30 years ago, the work at the now 550-acre campus off Wiltshire Road has led to the issue of 48 patents, Glenn said.

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