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posted: 11/6/2011 1:00 AM

Researchers work to preserve endangered tree genes

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  • Andrea Kramer, executive director of the U.S. portion of Botanic Gardens Conversation International, will speak Thursday at the Morton Arboretum on efforts to conserve trees.

      Andrea Kramer, executive director of the U.S. portion of Botanic Gardens Conversation International, will speak Thursday at the Morton Arboretum on efforts to conserve trees.
    Courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

  • The mapleleaf oak is one of the endangered oaks that Andrea Kramer is studying.

      The mapleleaf oak is one of the endangered oaks that Andrea Kramer is studying.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

  • Andrea Kramer is studying the Arkansas oak, which is listed as vulnerable.

      Andrea Kramer is studying the Arkansas oak, which is listed as vulnerable.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

  • Illinois enjoys fabulous native oaks such as this bur oak.

      Illinois enjoys fabulous native oaks such as this bur oak.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

  • The white oak is the Illinois state tree.

      The white oak is the Illinois state tree.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

  • Pin oak is in the red oak family.

      Pin oak is in the red oak family.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

  • Shumard's Oak is native to Illinois.

      Shumard's Oak is native to Illinois.
    Courtesy Morton Arboretum

 
 

Here's a phrase to strike terror into the hearts of tree lovers everywhere -- sudden oak death.

We don't know whether the pathogen whipping through some types of California oaks could kill our own mighty trees, but the fear is enough to move people like Andrea Kramer to action.

Kramer, executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International in the United States, will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

"Sudden oak death has a very low risk of impacting oaks in the Midwest, but we need to safeguard against such extremes. With climate change, and not knowing exactly what that particular pathogen is capable of doing, we want to get a better handle on it," she said in a recent interview.

Kramer wants to preserve a variety of trees and the genetic traits to help species survive such catastrophes. Saving species can be critical for replanting after disasters, too. And of course, research is also needed to prevent diseases from devastating populations of trees across the country.

"We need to make sure we have all of that genetic diversity available for research and as an insurance policy against losing species, but we don't have that covered yet," she said.

Mature trees growing in places like the Morton Arboretum are important for research, she said, adding that three of the four Southeastern oak species considered endangered or vulnerable that she is studying can be found at the arboretum.

One problem with oak trees is you can't just save acorns and grow new trees like you can with seeds from some trees. And, of course, saving live trees takes quite a bit of space.

Kramer is investigating growing these four species trees from tissue culture. While her project shows promise, it is not yet proved successful.

"We've been able to get them at least part of the way there. We need to make sure that we can get them out of that little vial," she said.

Scientists are trying to copy techniques used commercially with species like red oak to save threatened species.

While Kramer believes morality requires saving species, there are practical reasons, too.

"Maybe these trees from the Southeast don't have any immediate obvious use to the Midwest now, but with climate change that could be different. They could be important oak species for the Midwest, and we don't want to lose that genetic potential and a lot of future options."

One of the four species, the endangered Georgia oak, grows on the edges of very rocky outcroppings and could do well in suburban landscapes, she said. Its drought tolerance means it eventually could be a tree that thrives in a warmer Midwest without much water or fertilizer.

Her organization, which is housed at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, encourages efforts around the world "to make sure that amazing trees in the area are not lost."

Kramer's talk is in conjunction with a traveling exhibit authored at the Morton Arboretum, "Vanishing Acts: Trees under Threat." It will be in Lisle until September 2012.

The exhibit explains dangers that important trees face -- from wild apple trees being removed for home building to Fraser firs falling to insects. Pacific yews, important for cancer drugs, were once threated by overharvesting.

Viewers learn about successes of the Global Trees Campaign such as the Chinese magnolia, one of the most endangered trees in the world. Only one group of 10 is known on a mountain slope in China, but 200 from a nursery growing in a nature reserve offer a lifeline.

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