About Us

Early History

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Tree Improvement began at the University of Tennessee in 1959, when Dr. Eyvind Thor was hired by the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station to initiate a program of research. At that time, the most immediate problem was to decide which species to initiate studies. There are more than 50 commercially important species in Tennessee and a number of exotic coniferous species with potential that could not be overlooked. Four native species were selected: eastern white, loblolly, and Virginia pines and yellow-poplar. A comparison test among pine species (Pinetum) was established at the Highland Rim Forestry Station near Tullahoma, TN to evaluate exotic species. A total of 39 species were evaluated with 18 species exhibiting satisfactory survival. In general, species from Mexico and western North America, indicating that there was no benefit to growing exotic species for commercial wood production in Tennessee, During this period, intensive selections were made in eastern white pine, loblolly pine, and yellow-poplar and were grafted to form breeding orchards on the Knoxville Experiment Station’s Plant Sciences Farm. Progeny tests were also established at various locations in Tennessee and a breeding program was initiated. The orchards at the Plant Sciences Farm still exist today and are used by the Tennessee Division of Forestry for seed collection.

Professor Thor also initiated a basic and applied research program to restore the American chestnut. Chestnuts were once common in Tennessee forests, but populations on wetter sites were decimated by an exotic root rot disease (Phytophthora cinnamomi) followed by decimation of upland populations by and exotic canker disease, chestnut blight (causal agent – Cryphonectria parasitica). In the early 1960’s, there were still a few surviving American chestnut trees in forests. These trees were grafted and a breeding and testing program was initiated in an attempt to build suitable resistance to chestnut blight so that restoration would be possible. Concurrently, a basic research program was initiated to develop an assay procedure to detect resistance at an early age.

Tennessee land ownership is dominated by owners with small acreage tracts, e.g., 250 acres or less. For these landowners, planting of trees for timber production has less appeal than a crop with a shorter rotation age. Professor Thor established tests of various coniferous species that were managed for Christmas tree production. At that time, Christmas tree farms were not common in Tennessee. As a result of Thor’s and several prominent growers’ efforts, Christmas tree growing became an established industry in Tennessee. Click here to download Professor Thor's book, "Production of Christmas Trees in Tennessee", which was published in December 1985.