“Forestry and Land Scotland has strong ambitions to grow millions more trees, but they simply don’t have enough trees to meet demand,” says Phillip Ayres of Elsoms Seeds. “Tree seed supplies are sporadic – good years of production, called mast years, are interspaced with a series of barren years during which seed availability is poor; creating shortages.”
“We spotted an article about the CivTech Challenge that was looking at improving Scotland’s tree-seed. We felt that the sort of issues described were very similar to those we deal with in the vegetable industry – so that’s when we got interested,” says Phillip, who manages Technical Sales at Elsoms Seeds, leading plant breeding specialists in the UK.
Getting a good start
“They were getting tree seeds with high germination rates in the laboratory, but when they got it out into the field, the success rates were very low. So our idea was to take some tree seed and apply the sort of technology we use in vegetable seeds.”
“To encourage germination we prime the seeds. Priming is a tailored process of hydration and conditioning – it doesn’t involve any chemical additives,” Phillip explains. “What we’re aiming to do is get a more even germination, but also to improve the vigour. So, in vegetables, the treatment means you get a quicker strike off, quicker establishments, and in turn a better root ball establishment, all of which gives a generally more vigorous plant.”
“In vegetable seeds we’d be looking for >86% germination rate, whereas the foresters we spoke to considered 20% as good. So, if we could increase that to just 40% we would already be doubling the number of viable trees available for sale.”
The priming process at Elsoms Seeds is able to maintain seeds in a state ready for germination. This would help to mitigate the sporadic seed supply in trees. Phillip says it’s still early days; “We’ve only been working on this since November 2019 so we’re still in our first set of trials.”
A Biological boost
Looking to the future, Elsoms Seeds is investigating additional means of increasing plant germination and survival, as chemical seed treatments are increasingly being withdrawn.
“Biologicals are a microbe package that helps boost the ability of the tree to take up fertiliser, to stimulate root growth of the plant,” Phillip explains. “Some of them work by multiplying in the soil, to surround the germinating tree with healthy fungi and bacteria and this stops pathogens from reaching the plant. This is an area that agriculture is currently moving towards, so we felt it would be a good idea to start looking at microbials in tree trials.”
“We’ve started tree seed trials with three of our biologicals that were already on the market for vegetables – this is something that Forestry and Land Scotland were very interested in.”
Phillip Ayres will be speaking alongside Jim O’Neill of the Forestry Commission, Greg Beeton of Brown and Co and Stephen Briggs of Whitehall Farm at the Agri-TechE online event, ‘Seeing the Wood for the Trees,’ on October 8th. For more info and to reserve your place, click here.