Selective tree breeding has been used for many years to improve the fruiting properties and yields of horticultural trees for harvesting. Now these same techniques are being used to improve forestry tree species for timber production and to assist our native trees in adapting to the challenges of the modern environment.
Plant breeders are using techniques such as controlled fertilisation, cuttings and vegetative propagation to produce a range of superior timber trees with desirable characteristics such as good height and diameter growth, stem straightness and disease resistance.
Tree breeding is also helping to tackle many serious tree diseases through hybridising trees with closely related disease-resistant species. In the UK this technique is being used to find solutions to diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease and Red band needle blight and to improve resistance to pest problems such as bacterial cankers or green spruce aphid.
In recent years, the micro-propagation of trees has been developed. This involves taking small samples of live plant tissue and culturing them in the laboratory to produce individual plants. This technique enables a large number of individual plants to be produced or bulked up from one selected parent; it can be a useful tool in rebuilding populations of rare or endangered species.
With the advent of climate change, it is likely that modern breeding techniques will prove invaluable in tackling future environmental pressures. Climate change is expected to increase the likelihood of extreme weather, stressing trees and making them more susceptible to diseases or pests. There is a greater risk of foreign pests and diseases making their way to our shores, and predicted higher temperatures may require us to source tree seed from warmer areas to maintain our woodland resource at home.
For more information on tree breeding in the UK visit the Future Tree Trust (formerly known as the British and Irish Hardwoods Improvement Programme) – a partnership of landowners, research institutions and professionals combining forces to achieve better quality and growth in ash, wild cherry, oak, walnuts, birch, sycamore, and sweet chestnut.