Clones are a relatively common occurrence in the plant world

Genetically identically matched individuals, or clones, are a primary regeneration method for some of our more common forest and landscape species.

Windrow of Lombardi poplar in Houghton Co. Photo credit: Mike Schira

Windrow of Lombardi poplar in Houghton Co. Photo credit: Mike Schira

Vegetative reproduction of plants produces new growth that is an exact genetic match to the parent stock. Genetically identically matched individuals, or clones, are a primary regeneration method for some of our more common forest and landscape species.

Artificial cloning of animal species has been in the news of late and for many is controversial. In the plant world and with some single celled creatures cloning is a natural and common form of reproduction.

Many tree species utilize vegetative reproduction as a primary means of reestablishment. Segments of grape vine will develop roots if in contact with moist soil; willow cuttings can be encouraged to root if left in water or damp soil. Both are examples of vegetative reproduction where the new plants are genetic matches to the parent plants.

Lombardy poplar (P. nigra Italica), those very erect tightly branched trees commonly in use as windbreaks and ornamentals, are another example of clones. Less popular now than they once were in this country, these fast growing unique shaped trees are all genetically matched clones. Parent stock is found in the Lombardi Providence of Italy. The Lombardi popular trees we see are all male and produce no seed; all reproduction is from cuttings or sprouts with no genetic variation.

Our native aspen trees (P. tremuloides) also use vegetative reproduction to help sustain them. Although they do produce seed that will germinate into new plants with differing genetics; their primary reproduction is by way of sprouts from their roots. Should a tree become severely damaged or killed, thousands of shoots can develop from the expanse of the parent trees root distribution. As they mature these individually identical groups of new growth are referred to as clone clumps.

As you travel around the region this spring you may see pockets or clumps of aspen leafing out, while adjoining trees are still bare; this is an example of the genetic variation in these clone clumps. Each of the pockets or clumps originated from differing parent stock. Sometimes a similar situation occurs in the fall as the leaves begin to change.

This vegetative reproduction gives many of the species that have adapted this ability to be successful in sustaining themselves following disturbances; like wildfire or wildlife damage. Sprouts utilizing existing parent roots systems many times are more successful in establishing new populations than other species trying to get started from seed.

The cloning ability of some species is being researched as a possible way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Hybrids, which are also clones, of willow and aspen are being used in trials to evaluate their value as bio-fuels. Michigan State University Extension has developed an informational bulletin (E3202) which highlights some of the advantages and challenges in working with some of these interesting tree species in establishing wildlife plantings along with potential bio-fuel production.

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