AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program researcher spotlight: Gail Lowe

11.05.20

As tea tree matures, like other woody plants, it becomes more difficult to propagate through cuttings (also known as vegetatively) as the propagules (new plants) have poor rooting and form, as well as reduced vigour. Gail Lowe, PhD at Southern Cross University, is using her studies to overcome the difficulties of vegetatively propagating from mature tea tree plants.

Why is this research project important?

The tea tree industry would like to grow clones because these could potentially improve the productivity and uniformity of plantations that currently use seedlings. The adoption of clones could also provide the industry with greater responsiveness to market change through rapid line development relative to seedling production. However, the adverse qualities of mature plants in relation to vegetative propagation have hindered the development of an economically viable vegetative propagation system for tea tree.

Tea tree is planted at a high density, of around 33,000 plants per hectare, and it is predicted that replanting and expansion could reach 50 hectares per annum for the industry. This would require an output of around 1.7 million propagules per year from nurseries. While this volume could easily be supplied by seedling production, it would take substantial advances in propagation technique and expertise to achieve this through clone production.

This research project addresses the problems associated with maturation hindering cloning of tea tree and the high costs of tea tree plants. The development of an efficient clonal delivery system will alleviate the effects of maturation. It will also suggest nursery practices, which will allow plant production at volumes required at a cost that is acceptable to tea tree growers.

Why did you get involved in the project?

I have worked with plants for most of my life, either in the area of propagation and revegetation or in pest management. Over the years, I have successfully propagated hard to clone tree species by trial and error but not fully understood why a particular technique worked or not. The opportunity to take on this PhD project was ideal for me; it is allowing me to build on my practical skills in propagating plants as well as understand the ontogenetic and physiological factors that influence the success of propagation. I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to the tea tree industry by opening up the possibility of using clones for tea tree oil production.

How will this research benefit the tea tree oil industry?

Attempts to develop commercially viable clonal tea tree have been made over the past decades and while some examples of clonal production plantations exist, it has not been widely adopted by the industry. This project will provide a systematic investigation of the cloning process over the entire propagation chain.

The evaluation of emerging techniques for prolonging juvenile stage in stockplants will give propagators the tools to manage or even eliminate the effects of maturation. The benefits of optimising the nursery production system will include maximum cutting production. This will enable the industry to transition to large scale clonal deployment as well as increasing the capacity of industry to respond more swiftly to other regulatory or market preference changes.

This research could be adopted by forestry for some of the other difficult to propagate species and eucalyptus taxa of interest here in the subtropics.

It is hoped that in the future we will be able to plant clonal forests and conduct clonal forestry programs with these species, particularly those of high value.

What’s the best piece of professional/career advice you’ve ever been given?

I can’t say that anyone has ever really given me career advice. But I believe you need to use every job as an opportunity to learn something new. Building social networks is very important as it can create many opportunities for collaborations. Whether your research is academic or industry based, don’t get distracted by the science and forget what the problem is you are trying to solve.

Gail Lowe

Gail Lowe

Read more about AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program.