Seed Orchards in the Northwest

min read


November 14, 2023

Seed Orchards and Reforestation in the PNW


In Northwestern Oregon a dedicated team is working to breathe life back into scorched landscapes through post wild-fire restoration efforts. However, reforestation isn't just about planting trees; it begins with the delicate art of seed collection and the science of ensuring the genetic resilience of our future forests.


When we envision reforestation, the first picture that often comes to mind is the planting of young saplings, but have you ever wondered where these saplings come from? We recently conducted a site visit with our planting partners in Oregon and thought we would use this opportunity to pull back the veil on how the pre-planting process works, uncovering a fascinating world of challenges and triumphs.


Every planting site faces its own challenges and threats. Beyond the obvious perils such as lack of sun or rain, Northwest Oregon faces the natural hostilities of deer and other wildlife, while also being specifically vulnerable to Mountain Beavers. Akin to North American muskrat-sized rodents, Mountain Beavers find sustenance in ferns and saplings, posing a unique threat to the young green shoots. Add to this diseases like the Swiss Needle Cast and foresters have their work cut out for them. 


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Yet, amidst these challenges, the unsung heroes of reforestation emerge—seed orchards. Here, a dedicated team of seed specialists and geneticists work their magic to ensure saplings have the best chance of survival.  The journey begins with finding the best trees in nature to use for grafting. This means finding the biggest, most vigorous and healthy looking trees which in theory should produce the most viable offspring. 


The team then grafts the selected trees into their seed orchard. However, the crucial question lingers: Are these trees genetically superior, or have they merely lucked out in ideal microsites? This is where the scions take center stage.


The orchard team meticulously raises these new seedlings, carefully observing their performance. Disease resistance, growth metrics, and other vital signs become the metrics for determining the "best" parents. A block of formidable trees, deemed superior in their seed-producing capabilities, emerges from this stringent selection process.


But the process doesn't end there. Cross-pollination tests follow, unraveling the optimal genetic varieties. Only the crème de la crème make it to the orchards—the very best, poised to become the lifeblood of our rejuvenated ecosystems.


Creating a new orchard block involves the delicate art of grafting trees onto rootstock scion material. A wedge of rootstock, meticulously matched to the caliber of the stock, becomes the canvas for a three-month healing process. Once the graft has matured, the material transforms into a seed-producing powerhouse, ready to be transplanted into the field. Here, under careful management, the trees will evolve, producing cones after a few years to perpetuate the cycle.


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What sets these genetically superior seeds apart is their ability to embody the best features for survival. The orchard team can handpick traits—bitter tastes to deter herbivores, resilience to heat and climate change—all strategically chosen to stack the odds in favour of survival.


As Oregon's seed orchards silently and diligently play their part, the saga of post-fire restoration unfolds—a testament to the marriage of science and nature, where the future takes root in the careful cultivation of genetic excellence.

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