At Trees for Life we aim to grow as many of our own trees as possible. The reason for this is so that the trees that we plant have come from locally-collected seed, and are of the same genetic stock as the existing trees. This is extremely important, especially with regard to the current problems of tree disease.
Since 2012 we have had our Tree Nursery at Dundreggan, having previously used Plodda Lodge. We have five polytunnels and grow over 60,000 native trees each year, including Scots pine, rowan, downy birch, juniper, hazel, oak and others, as well as rare woodland flowers.
We are grateful for the support of The Naturesave Trust, which helped to fund one of our polytunnels.
In Scotland, aspen trees rarely flower or set seed, nor do they readily grow from stem cuttings. As aspen naturally spread by sending new shoots, called ‘suckers’, up from their root system, we can encourage this suckering by bringing root cuttings into a polytunnel in early spring, and harvesting the shoots as they come up, rooting each cutting individually using a mist propagation unit. This method, despite a good success rate of usually between 80 and 95%, is very labour intensive; hence trees are expensive and not available in such large quantities as other species that are readily propagated from seed.
In conjunction with the charity Coille Alba, which leads the Aspen 2020 Project, we are carrying out innovative root grafting experiments. We graft material from the top of mature aspen trees onto young trees, to encourage them to flower when mature. We have had a great success rate of 84% with this, and hope to be able to contribute to a 'seed orchard' or 'gene bank', from which propagated trees will be abundant and inexpensive, thereby dramatically increasing the availability of young aspen for native woodland planting schemes.
Trees for Life has been working with the propagation of aspen from root cuttings since 1991 and we now have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 young trees each year in our special aspen propagation facility at our Tree Nursery.
There is a surge of interest in restoring the ‘montane scrub layer’ in Scotland, and so there is also an increasing demand for plants of montane species, such as dwarf birch and dwarf willows, to plant in these restoration schemes. Such plants are not always easy to come by, and neither are seeds or cuttings, as so little montane habitat survives in good condition in Scotland.
The Trees for Life tree nursery is taking steps to specialise in propagating these montane plants and making them available for planting schemes. At Dundreggan we are very lucky to have a large amount of dwarf birch, and as some of these plants have now been fenced to exclude browsing by deer for over 12 years, they have been able to grow up and flower and produce seed. This seed has germinated well in the nursery and we have now produced thousands of new dwarf birch plants.
As we have few of the dwarf willow species on our own land, trips further afield have been needed to collect material for willow propagation. Many of the remaining communities are very small and fragmented so the seed, if there is any, may not be viable or may produce hybrid plants. It has to be collected at exactly the right time and sown immediately as seed will only live for a few days, but it does germinate and grow within a couple of days of sowing if the seed is good!
We mainly collect cutting material, as willows root readily from stem cuttings taken in the dormant season. This has resulted in some expeditions up to high, steep crags in cold conditions to find remote plants and then reaching out to take cuttings from branches that are only able to survive in places where the deer can’t reach them! Generally, we do not like to take too much material from these vulnerable plants, but bring small quantities of material back to the nursery to grow, and then take further cuttings from the resulting plants to increase our production. To increase production dramatically however, we need to produce seed from our nursery plants – under controlled conditions – otherwise we will end up with plenty of hybrids. So we now have stock-beds of different species of willow growing from different provenances, and hope in the future to be able to grow willows ‘to order’ from our stock beds.
We have a range of species such as dark-leaved willow, tea-leaved willow, downy willow, whortle-leaved willow, as well as the much more common eared willow and the rarest one of all – the woolly willow.
As part of the Mountain Woodland Project, our Tree Nursery is growing around 10,000 dwarf birch trees each year. This will help bring back this important layer of the ecosystem back to the Highlands.
If you are a keen gardener or keen to learn, with an interest in conservation, and would like to spend a week in the beautiful Scottish Highlands at the very heart of our rewilding operations, why not join us on a Tree Nursery Conservation Week? You will be helping to grow rare and endangered species which are vital to restore the ancient Caledonian Forest. The activities are many and varied, and include potting, seed sorting, planting out, mulching, weeding and much more. The weeks are fully inclusive from only £180.
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