An eastern U.S. project focused on developing improved white oak (Quercus alba) and understanding its genetic potential has been established at the University of Kentucky. The project is working with forest, wood, and distilling industries and forestry, conservation, and wildlife agencies and organizations to answer a wide variety of questions associated with genetic variation in white oak.

Any interested individual or organization is welcome to join the white oak genetics and tree improvement collaboration. Head to this link to learn more about ways to become involved!

The project is aligned with and supports the goals of the White Oak Initiative and the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, focusing on traits that have economic and ecological value. The goals of the project are to (1) provide a sustainable supply of improved white oak seedlings to meet current and future demands; (2) improve our ability to conserve and restore white oak to achieve a variety of ecological, conservation and economic goals at regional and national levels; and (3) provide genetic resources for academic and industrial research and development.

There are three major phases to the project. Phase 1 began in 2019 and site preparation for Phase 2 is underway with planting starting in 2021.

Phase 1 — Collecting and Archiving Genetic Material: White oak genetic material is being collected from the entire geographic range of white oak. Acorns are planted and grown at the Kentucky Division of Forestry’s (KDF) Morgan County nursery. Twigs (scions) from the trees that acorns were collected from are grafted to create a clone bank to conserve genetic material of the parent trees. After selection based on nursery performance, the eventual goal is to have 300 seed sources moving to Phase 2 (progeny testing).

Despite a poor mast year, over 17,000 acorns representing 91 parent trees (seed sources) and nine states were collected in 2019 and planted at the KDF nursery. Volunteer acorn collectors included state and federal agency personnel, state extension programs such as the Master Naturalists, NGO groups, individuals from forest and distilling industries, and citizen scientists.

In 2020, over 75 grafts were made to initiate the clone bank. Acorn and scion collecting will continue annually until the entire geographic range of white oak is represented.

The 2020 acorn collecting effort is currently being organized and the project can use your help! All we need from each person is a one-gallon Ziploc-type bag filled with acorns collected from the ground from under one tree. Postage and a return address label are provided to each acorn collector. Head to this link to learn more, and contact if you can help collect acorns!

Phase 2 — Progeny Testing: 1-0 seedlings will be planted in progeny tests to evaluate traits of interest to stakeholders. Depending on the trait, identification of superior performance can occur within 3-15 years. The distilling industry has taken the lead in supplying land and support for progeny testing.

In Kentucky, a repository to conserve genetic material via offspring from all seed sources, and other progeny tests are being established. Several smaller regional progeny tests will also be established throughout the range of white oak. These smaller tests will contain regional subsets of seed sources from the large tests and allow us to evaluate local adaptation, non-local genetic superiority, and genetic X environment interactions.

Planting will begin in March 2021 using the best seed sources from the nursery and will continue until seed source representation within each progeny test is complete.

Several public and private industry partners have expressed interest in participating but many more partners are needed throughout the range of white oak to host a regional progeny test. See the program’s website to learn how your organization can be involved progeny testing.The land area needed varies depending on the number of seed sources included, but approximately 22 seed sources can be evaluated in a one-acre progeny test.

Phase 3 — Seed Orchard Establishment: Parents of superior progeny will be used to create grafted seed orchards using material stored in the clone banks. Natural or controlled pollination will result in improved seedlings that will support ecological success in the forest and/or increased economic value for wood products industries. State nurseries are a logical place for locating seed orchards because they are the most effective way to deploy improved seedlings. However, other types of landowners can also participate.

Initial funding for the white oak genetics project has been provided by the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, the Kentucky Agriculture Experiment Station, the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station and the Kentucky Division of Forestry.