* About 20 years ago, forestry researcher James Hanover began his life's work at Michigan State University: the decades-long project of improving the Colorado Blue Spruce -- a hardy, handsome tree used throughout temperate regions of the world as the foundation for landscaping.

Having successfully crossed that species with the White Spruce, Hanover expects to have the first federal certificate, similar to a patent, for a hybrid tree seed. The new hybrid species is the Spartan Spruce, named for the warrior of his school's symbol.

The cross is unusual because few useful hybrid trees have ever been made. The time and labor involved is a lifetime just to make one successful cross of a species whose life cycle is almost as long as that of a plant breeder.

The Spartan Spruce has the striking blue color and conical shape of the ornamental Colorado Blue, but it grows as fast as the White Spruce, maturing in perhaps 20 to 40 years instead of double that time.

The Spartan also has the White's soft needles, but is impervious to the cold and frost that affect the Blue. It can be grown for lumber, pulp, landscaping, or used as Christmas trees, Hanover said.

Hanover took pollen from one species and fertilized the blossom of the other, by hand, in thousands of trees in the 1960s. Then he took the 1 percent or 2 percent of trees that made successful, healthy seeds from that cross and planted them. They flowered about five years after the project started. Then he spent years trying the new cross in different environments, as well as picking out the best of the new breed.

Finally, the first generation of the new species were grown together so they would cross-fertilize among themselves, to produce second generation seeds and trees.

It is this second generation, which breeds true, that is expected to receive the agricultural equivalent of a patent. Commercial use is expected next spring.