This spring the National Academy of Inventors will induct 170 innovators who were elected as NAI fellows in 2014. A rare breed of inventor will be among the group officially receiving this distinguished honor.

Mike Dirr, a University of Georgia professor emeritus of horticulture, will be the first plant breeder among the NAI’s 414 fellows to be inducted for innovations that have directly affected ornamental gardens. Dirr has introduced more than 200 new plant varieties to the gardening world. More than 50 of his introductions have received U.S. plant patents.

Michael DirrHis creations feature traits such as repeat blooming, disease resistance and drought tolerance that have made popular shrubs such as hydrangeas more appealing to the gardening public.

“I never dreamed that a plant breeder would be recognized for such a distinguished honor,” Dirr said. “I am delighted and truly humbled by this recognition.”

Candidates for NAI fellow typically make contributions to America’s innovation economy in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, and support and enhancement of innovation. Only five other fellows have been elected for their work with plants. Of those, only one has been involved in breeding, and that was with blueberries and cranberries in the agricultural arena.

An innovative contributor

There’s a good chance gardeners are already familiar with Dirr, though they probably don’t realize it. His innovative contributions to the horticulture industry are evident in virtually every wholesale nursery and garden center in the United States and in nursery catalogs throughout the world, said Brent Marable, plant licensing manager in the UGA Technology Commercialization Office.

Dirr’s signature contribution is in the development of hydrangea cultivars, which are widely grown, especially in the South as well as in Europe. His efforts to improve the ability of hydrangeas to bloom multiple times throughout the growing season, resist plant diseases and withstand harsh conditions can be seen in the cultivars "Endless Summer" and "Twist-n-Shout." These traits were fundamental to creating a surge in U.S. hydrangea sales, according to Marable.

Dirr introduced his first hydrangea cultivars in the late 1980s, Marable said. These were oak leaf hydrangeas called "Alice" and "Allison." Since then, he said, hydrangea sales have quadrupled. In 2012, more than half of all hydrangeas sold in the United States were attributable to Dirr's cultivars, he added.

Mt. Airy fothergillaHow gardeners know Dirr

Dirr’s wide-ranging innovations also have advanced breeding in other genera and made them more accessible to gardeners. His horticultural introductions include woody shrubs such as abelias "Rose Creek" and "Canyon Creek," buddleias "Attraction" and "Bicolor," fothergilla "Mt. Airy" (at right), the "Dazzle" line of dwarf crape myrtles, and trees that include a wide variety of maples, elms, ginkgoes, ashes and magnolias. Dirr said he has plants in five genera still awaiting commercial introduction.

In addition to having plants influenced by Dirr in their gardens, many gardeners may have one or more of Dirr’s gardening books on their coffee tables or in their libraries. He has written 12 books, including “Hydrangeas for American Gardens,” “Viburnums, Flowering Shrubs for Every Season,” “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia” and “The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses.” The latter, which has sold more than 500,000 copies, is the country’s most widely used teaching and horticultural reference text. The American Horticultural Society has called it one of the greatest garden books of the past 75 years. He has also published more than 300 scientific papers.

The University of Georgia Research Foundation nominated Dirr to be an NAI fellow, according to J. Merritt Melancon, public relations coordinator in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Dirr and the other newly elected fellows will be formally inducted into the academy March 20 at a ceremony at the NAI’s annual conference at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations Andrew Faile will deliver the keynote address at the induction ceremony. Fellows will be presented with a special trophy, newly designed medal and rosette pin in honor of their outstanding accomplishments.

Overall, the inventors who have been chosen for the rank represent more than 150 research universities, and governmental and nonprofit research institutions.

What makes an NAI fellow?

Three primary requirements are necessary to be elected as an NAI fellow: an invention that has made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society; an affiliation with an academic organization; and inventor designation on at least one U.S. patent.

“NAI fellow status is granted to academic inventors whose work has brought real benefits to society,” NAI President Paul R. Sanberg said. “Inventors who have been nominated by their peers are evaluated by a selection committee based on contributions they have made throughout their entire careers. The caliber of these innovators and the cumulative impact they have had on science and technology is unparalleled.”

Nominees are evaluated on their entire body of work rather than on a specific invention, discovery or field of research, according to the NAI website.

The NAI was founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society. The organization is located in Tampa, Florida.

Related on MNN:

Inset photos: (Dirr) UGA Public Affairs; (fothergilla) Drew Avery/flickr