Tennessee Tree Improvement Program director Scott Schlarbaum stands among a collection of grafted and cloned native trees at the program’s grafting facility off Alcoa Highway. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press
2-minute video on hemlock genetic diversity conservation added to this article on September 2, 2021
UT Tree Improvement Program prepares for its greatest grafting season yet
“What you have here is the future of Tennessee forests,” said Scott Schlarbaum, a professor and director of the University of Tennessee Tree Improvement Program.
You can tell from a chuckle he thinks his statement might sound hyperbolic and a bit dramatic, but it’s really not.
He gestured across an unassuming but important UT facility just off Alcoa Highway tucked within the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center that will be the main base for a historic tree-grafting effort that will commence this winter.
The goal: Create trees with high-quality genetic traits ranging from wildlife and habitat qualities to timber value.
Heavy traffic hissed down the nearby highway as it passed by the modest understock yard, greenhouse, raised beds and small house containing offices used as the main grafting facility for the UT Tree Improvement Program (TIP). At least 50,000 vehicles pass by the site every day but most drivers and passengers are oblivious to the existence of this small but important outpost of forest conservation skirted by a Knox County greenway.
The Tree Improvement Program was first established in 1959. It survives as a notable exception to the cost-cutting of such projects in other states at both university and government levels.
“These days we tend to look only at the short term. UT did not.”
Beginning in January, Schlarbaum, director of the program since 1983, will oversee grafting efforts on some 3,600 trees. Last year, during which TIP efforts were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, about 2,000 trees were grafted.
“We are gearing up for our biggest grafting year ever. That’s a huge deal,” Schlarbaum said.