Tree breeders continue to use visual assessments of stem shape and branching habit as part of their selection criteria because these are key features used by timber merchants in assessing stand value. However, it is not known how effective these assessments are in introducing real improvements in stem and branching traits to breeding and production populations of Sitka spruce. This study determined the genetic characteristics of several traits associated with stem straightness and branching, and examined whether these traits are suitable as future selection criteria.
Trees were sampled from 33 families selected from a 20-year-old half-sibling progeny trial growing in northern Scotland and a control of directly imported material from Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada. Stem straightness and branching habit were 'scored' for quality in addition to direct measurements made on growth and branching characteristics.
Results indicate that heritability values for most external stem and branching properties evaluated visually are sufficiently strong to enable effective selection in tree improvement programmes. Estimated genetic correlations suggest that substantial improvements in branch and stem quality could be achieved without a reduction in growth rate.
Visual scoring systems appear to successfully target families of good growth and small branch size relative to the control population.