Forests Ontario

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A Labour of Love

Each spring, Ontario’s trees undergo a transformation. Species like the white pine, white spruce, and sugar maple begin to bud and flower-the beginning of the seed development cycle that will take place over the coming months. Calculating how much seed will be produced in any given year is a challenging process, and one that relies on solid planning and management.

Forests Ontario annually hosts June workshops designed to hone the untrained eye and to teach participants how to spot the “potential” of trees for seed production, a process known as seed forecasting. Whether or not a tree will produce seed depends on a variety of factors, including species, region, and climate, to name a few.

Forecasters help to determine the potential seed crop for the fall, an integral step in the planning for tree planting in the following three to four years. Forecasters can be any individual- be it your neighbour, a naturalist or someone who just enjoys the outdoors or, it could be various entities involved in afforestation work including private companies, conservation authorities, nurseries and government facilities. Organizations like Forests Ontario often rely heavily on the public eye to learn of flowering (i.e. crop potential), however the organization actively works with planting partners to predict crop potential for up to two years in advance in order to help set four to five year planting goals under initiatives such as the 50 Million Tree Program. Working to forecast crops remains integral to growing Ontario’s forest cover, and is something that any interested party can participate in. Forests Ontario is continually working to generate public awareness and interest to inspire participation in the forecasting program.

Once forecasters have expressed the crop potential in their regions, Forests Ontario works with private collectors to develop purchase orders for seed collection. Forests Ontario hosts Certified Seed Collector and Mentoring courses in partnership with the Forest Gene Conservation Association and Natural Selections during September to prepare collectors with the skills, resources and tools they need to collect the best seeds possible and to know how to maintain their product until it is shipped.

Seed collection varies widely by species and generally takes place between August and December, with a small amount of collection even taking place in January and February and the spring of the following year. Collection can be a laborious and sometimes daunting task. Collection methods vary widely by species-acorns, from Oaks, may be collected after seed has matured and is falling to the ground, while species such as native hemlock requires collectors to extract seed from the tips of branches generally on the upper ¾ of the tree. Collectors are trained to know what to look for and to understand the ideal time to collect a high quality product to sell.

Cones and seeds are purchased from collectors when seed is mature. Mature seed is ripe for picking and is at its germination prime. Seed collectors maintain important source information related to their collection. Each batch of cones is assigned a cone lot number, a unique identifier which indicates the coordinate location of the collection, the seed zone (which indicates region), information regarding the collector and the date and time it was collected. This information may be used in the future to analyze the success rates of seeds from various regions and collectors.

Collected seed, as contracted by Forests Ontario for use in its programs, is then sent to the Ontario Tree Seed Facility (OTSF) as soon as possible in order to maintain the viability of the seed and to ensure that good crop does not become compromised by improper handling or storage. From this point on, the seed processing and storage is the responsibility of the OTSF. A whole new set of processes then begin in order to preserve and manage the seed for future use. Together, forecasters and collectors will complete a months-long process and will begin anew each spring to search for high quality, source identified native tree seed.

August marks the beginning of a busy time of year at the Ontario Tree Seed Facility (OTSF). Located in Angus, Ontario, the OTSF sits on 23 acres of land and can house some 10,000 hectolitres of seed at maximum capacity. The OTSF stores seed for a variety of clients and purposes and is a major distributor to nurseries, forestry businesses and private buyers in Ontario. A 90-year old facility run by the Ministry of Natural Resources, the OTSF relies on private suppliers to collect seed and each year houses and stores some 50 native seed species from across the province.

Once the OTSF has purchased seed from private collectors, processing can occur. Thus begins an intricate process that varies based on the species. Seed is extracted from cones and fruits using heavy machinery and various other techniques. Cones are put into large kilns that feature tumbler drums with metal mesh screening. Rotating and heating within the drums force the cones to open, and seeds are quickly filtered out through the metal mesh onto a conveyor belt.

Leftover empty cones are now of little use to the OTSF, but rather than discard them as a waste item, they are bagged and sold to interested buyers. Many of the open cones are purchased for use in the potpourri industry, although the OTSF also works with local crafters and florists to ensure that no cones go to waste.

Once extraction has occurred, “dirty” seed must be thoroughly cleaned to ensure its long-term viability. Herein begins another delicate process to prepare the seed before it can be properly stored. Depending on the species, seed can travel through a variety of heavy machinery including scalpers, de-wingers, fanning mills and float tanks before moving on to the drying process.

Seed is dried to achieve the correct moisture content, usually between five to eight per cent moisture, as a way to winterproof the seed during the storage process. All seed is tested for germination, a process that measures germinative energy, or how quickly seeds will germinate.

For Al Foley, manager of the OTSF, tracking seed from purchase to sale is of the utmost importance. “Each lot of seed is assigned a lot number for tracking purposes and all information related to the seed is heavily managed,” says Foley. “The processes at the OTSF are precise and technical, relying on a secure chain of custody to ensure that all information is stored in a database for tracking and future planning.”

Processed seed is preserved and carefully stored in a ‘bank’ designed with facilities to accommodate differing species at varying ages. Some species, like most conifers, require cold storage and are housed in large freezers, while some, like the recalcitrant hardwoods, thrive in warmer environments. The seed will remain at the bank until it is purchased and ready to be planted.

Forests Ontario’s seed is historically stored for a period of four years, and during such time it is preserved for planting. The OTSF requires that only certain species can be stored at the bank, historically those that can maintain viability in long-term storage. Other species, such as maples and hickories, whose seed cannot withstand long-term storage, will be sold off to nurseries and other buyers who can plant them immediately.

Once seed has been purchased from the OTSF, often in late winter or early spring, it is then shipped directly to its growers by the OTSF. Forests Ontario’s seeds are sold to partner nurseries that grow the seed into seedlings, ready for planting. Seed will be sown in May or early June, depending on the spring conditions. Growing trees, too, has its own planning challenges and requirements. Nurseries may wish to sell trees at varying stages of growth. For example, if a nursery wishes to sell a three-year old tree in 2016, the seed will have to be sowed in early 2014 to achieve the desired outcome.

Planting a tree doesn’t just begin with putting a seedling in the ground. It relies on a long chain of work and a system of planning that takes place months and years in advance. Each step of the process, from seed forecasting to the growth of a seedling, must work in tandem. In order to plan for sustainable, successful woodlands, the best seed must be collected and fostered to grow trees well-adapted to the sites that will one day comprise our forests.