KNOXVILLE — A record acorn crop this fall at University of Tennessee seed orchards will help feed state wildlife, preserve declining oak forests and boost the state’s economy, the leader of UT’s Tree Improvement Program said Tuesday.
More than 3,000 pounds of red oak seed acorns from the two orchards — enough to produce about 300,000 seedlings — will be turned over to Tennessee nurseries, Dr. Scott Schlarbaum said.
UT started its northern red oak project in 1973 and harvests acorns from the UT Ames Plantation in Hardeman County and the U.S. Forest Service’s Watauga orchard in Johnson County.
“The forest service orchard has been producing since 1993, but this is the first year for the Ames Plantation to bear acorns,” Schlarbaum said. “Together, they have produced our biggest acorn yield ever and form the largest oak seed orchard in the nation.”
UT will keep a few seeds for experiments and tests, but most will go to state nurseries to be grown into seedlings. After about a year, the state will distribute the new trees to private landowners and state and national forest services.
The northern red oak, which can grow 100 feet tall in 60 years, is the predominant oak species in Tennessee and is vital to the state’s economy, Schlarbaum said.
It is a major wildlife food source, a leading economic export, and a key component in forests and outdoor recreation that boost Tennessee’s tourism industry, he said.
Schlarbaum said the region’s oak forests are slowly declining. Reasons include more deer that eat oak seedlings, and forest management policies that help other species.
The UT project will help replenish oaks in areas devastated by fire, diseases and other causes, Schlarbaum said.
It also is giving scientists research opportunities to learn more about oak orchard management.
“As we study these oaks, we are gradually taking out the poorer trees and trying to calculate how much we can improve them genetically,” Schlarbaum said. “We are continually conducting new tests with the best samples to improve the species.”