Nfld. & Labrador

Thoroughbred program grows super trees in central Newfoundland

Scientists in central Newfoundland are having great success with a thoroughbred breeding program.

Tree improvement plan is increasing province's wood supply

Barry Linehan, left, and Dean Taylor grow super trees at a government research facility in Wooddale. (Leigh Anne Power)

Scientists in central Newfoundland are having great success with a thoroughbred breeding program.

It's not, as you might guess, about race horses or show dogs. These guys are producing super … trees.

Ever since Barry Linehan, who manages the provincial government's Centre for Agriculture and Forestry Development in Wooddale, was in school, he dreamed of growing a bigger, better version of the trees made by Mother Nature. These days, his dream is coming true.

Linehan checks out a recently planted super seedling. (Leigh Anne Power)

"So, we started in the early '80s, going out and covering the entire province looking for these super trees," he said.

"Technical staff combed thousands and thousands of stands looking for these fast-growing trees, large diameter, small branches, which would mean better quality lumber. Trees that had no sign of disease and straight."

"Almost a thousand different trees were identified as being these super trees. We call them 'plus trees.'" 

Finding super trees in the wild was just the first step. Linehan and his colleagues then had to figure out how to duplicate them in great numbers.

"First, they were cloned by grafting and brought to the nursery here. Then they were bred and then planted out in tests," he explained. "So, any improvement program … if you're working with racehorses, you're looking to breed the two thoroughbreds, then test the offspring, then select the offspring. It's the same with trees." 

One of dozens of greenhouses at Wooddale, filled with super tree seedlings. (Leigh Anne Power)

Once they successfully cloned the best trees, the scientists started cross-breeding them.

"The female part of the tree on a conifer is a cone. So we pull this bag over the tree. It's got a window in it so you can peek in and see how she's doing," he said.

"So if the cone is receptive, she lets you know. Then we collect pollen off another tree that we want to cross it with."

"And we put that in a little perfume bottle, make a slit in the bag, puff this pollen in and seal it. Then we know that every seed that's in this bag is of this known pedigree."

Part of Dean Taylor's job is the actual breeding of the super trees. He's the guy who uses that perfume bottle to spray pollen into the cone bags. His colleagues jokingly call him the Sperminator.

Taylor shows off a cooler filled with millions of tree seeds. (Leigh Anne Power)

After the cones produce thoroughbred seeds, he has to get them out of there.

The cones have to be dried, and the seeds shaken out. Then they have to be separated from all the debris that's shaken out with them. They're filtered through the several levels of a separator and in the end, millions of super seeds are bagged and stored in the cooler at minus ten degrees until planting time.

Also in the cooler are huge containers of wild seed, ready in case of a major fire or outbreak of disease that would require replanting a lot of trees quickly.

Year-round operation

Taylor says when breeding season is over, it doesn't mean the work stops. The greenhouses need to be tended and records kept up to date so he knows exactly which trees carry what genes. 

"Never a dull moment here," he said. "You could be at anything on moment and the next be at something else. There's that much stuff going on here. Especially in the tree world, you could have insects, disease, parasites. Anything could happen in one day. You're going around looking at something and things change overnight." 

Linehan checks out a sack of super tree cones. (Leigh Anne Power)

The vast tree orchards at Wooddale have been decades in the making. Now, though, Linehan and his team are starting to see real results.

"Our first generation is nearing completion. We're getting about 15 per cent genetic gains in our white spruce. And in a couple of years we'll have 20 per cent genetic gain," he said. 

"By genetic gain, I mean more wood volume per hectacre. Twenty per cent, 15 per cent more wood volume today than there was originally, compared to wild tree stands."

Program already showing success

The goal is to produce 40 per cent more wood. That would mean 40 per cent more viable timber for building, less land use and easier access for harvesters.

And super trees grow faster than those in the wild, so there's less time to wait before cutting them.  

Trees are both male and female, with the female cones on the upper branches. (Leigh Anne Power)

Barry Linehan says every year when he sees the data that proves his program is working, it's like Christmas.

He'll probably have retired from his dream job by the time it reaches its peak. But he believes the work he's doing now will build a better forest and create new jobs for lots of others.

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