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50 years of tree breeding – Field progeny – Hybrid larch

‘Hybrid polycross’ progeny testing

The production of hybrid material as the end product of a breeding programme has meant that progeny testing has always involved the testing of hybrid larch (HL) families derived from European (EL) and Japanese larch (JL) plus trees. All progeny test material has therefore to be produced from artificial pollination of plus trees of one species with a mixture of pollens of the other to ensure pure hybrid seed for testing. Since plus trees were often mature at the time of selection, this type of ‘hybrid polycross’ progeny testing had to be delayed until grafts in a clone bank were ready to flower. Unlike other species in which open-pollinated material could be used, there was thus a minimum delay of about 10 years between plus tree selection and progeny testing.

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Difficulties with controlled pollinations

It is difficult to carry out controlled pollinations with the larches since they flower early in spring when damaging frosts and gales may still occur, the number of full seed per cone is often less than 10 and there are problems associated with pollen storage and assessments of pollen viability.

Consequently, sowing of progeny tests is often delayed while sufficient seed is accumulated over several years. Progress was inevitably slow. Each year, in which pollinations were carried out in clone banks and untested clonal seed orchards, involving hard work in inhospitable outside conditions, the effort was often only to be rewarded with a poor harvest due to any combination of the problems noted above.

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Planting of progeny tests between 1959 and 1994

Between 1959 and 1994 a total of 71 larch progeny tests were planted. The fact that these constitute 43 series reflects that replication across sites was often less than three (many on only a single site) due to shortage of seed. This 36-year period includes an interruption between 1964 and 1973 when the breeding programme was put on hold for economic reasons. This was due to a reduction in the amount of commercial larch planting, but it was started again as the demand increased for an aesthetically contrasting species to Sitka spruce and pine monocultures.

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Some results

Despite the difficulties associated with the production of hybrid larch families, some outstanding hybrid full-sib crosses have been identified offering considerable gains over JL or EL of seed stand origins. One of the early superior specific family combinations was EL6 x JL42 which latterly appeared as a control in HL progeny tests as a measure of the standard required by new, high-performing hybrid combinations.

A small number of selected EL and JL parents have now been identified and a small breeding population has been constructed. The possibilities of mixed-species clonal seed orchards or the mass vegetative multiplication of hybrid families made by artificial pollination exist for producing a supply of improved hybrid larch.

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What’s of interest

These pages review the work performed by the Forestry Commission and Forest Research on tree improvement following the 50th aniversary of its establishment which passed in 1998.The genetic background describes the scientific procedures of tree breeding and the technical terms used in the remaining pages.All species are referred to by their common name in English.

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