The Unità di Ricerca per le Produzioni Legnose fuori Foresta (research unit for intensive wood production) originated from the Istituto di Sperimentazione per la Pioppicoltura (poplar research institute) built in Casale Monferrato on land owned by the Società Cartiere Burgo and officially inaugurated on October 1st 1939.
In 1952, the Società Cartiere Burgo passed control of it over to the Ente Nazionale per la Cellulosa e per la Carta (ENCC), which, in 1979, entrusted its management to the Società Agricola e Forestale per le Piante da Cellulosa e da Carta (SAF), one of its affiliates.
When ENCC and SAF were wound up, the ISP came under the Ministero per le Politiche Agricole e Forestali (ministry of agriculture and forestry) in 2001, under the reorganisation scheme for research institutes. Since 1st October 2004 it has formed part of the CRA - Consiglio per la Ricerca e la Sperimentazione in Agricoltura (council for agricultural research).
The CRA-PLF studies intensive wood production outside forests for several industrial uses (timber and timber products, biopolymers, energy) with fast-growing species (poplar, willow, acacia, eucalyptus), noble hardwoods (walnut, cherry) and Mediterranean conifers. Particular attention is devoted to the protection and conservation of biodiversity. Main activities: breeding, cultivation techniques, sustainable pest and weed control, phytoremediation, harvesting, wood technology and economic assessment of productions.
Poplar wood is the most important internal source of material for Italian industries who import a considerable quantity of wood from abroad to cope with their necessities. The cultivation of poplars, thanks also to short rotation periods (10-12 years), appears to be the only system which can guarantee an increase of the national production of wood without damaging natural wood resources and without compromising their environmental and recreational functions.
To improve the 'poplar system' it is important to adopt an over-all approach, dealing with breeding, cultural, technical and economical aspects of production and of industrial utilisation, without ignoring the role that poplars can perform in the restoration of degraded fluvial environments.
At the CRA-PLF research work is chiefly aimed at developing new poplar clones with particular qualities such as quick growth, disease resistance and production of high-quality wood, adaptable to varying soil environments. Many poplar and willow clones obtained by this structure have been widely appreciated and planted all over the world; a few, having successfully undergone experimentation in Italy and France, have been recently protected by Plant Breeder’s Right and are now available for commercialization in Europe. Among these are: ‘Arno’, ‘Brenta’, ‘Dvina’, ‘Lambro’, ‘Lena’, ‘Mella’, ‘Neva’, ‘Oglio’, ‘Soligo’, ‘Taro’, ‘Timavo’ whose wood is used for plywood production and ‘Orion’, ‘Baldo’ ‘Drago’ and ‘Levante’ particularly suitable for biomass production. (For more information see: www.populus.it/cloni.php)
Techniques of intensive cultivation are also investigated, in traditional plantations for biomass, as well as extensive or semi-extensive forestry models which respond better to the requirements of ecologically sustainable arboriculture. Likewise, types of cultivation are studied which are best-suited to applications for the regeneration of waste land and restoration of natural river-bank environments, for the protection of surface waters from pollution and soil remediation of areas polluted by industrial emissions (phytoremediation).
Research work is carried out through projects, often in collaboration with other Italian or international Institute. The PLF also undertakes experimentation, publication, consultancy and technical assistance for poplar growers and wood industries, and training for both Italian and foreign technicians.
At PLF Headquarters research groups carry out their activity in the following areas:
Breeding and biodiversity
Genetic analysis techniques are applied to large breeding populations belonging to various poplar species, with the objective of breeding genetic lines with improved characteristics of rapid and steady growth, resistance to disease and insect pests, adaptability to different soil and environmental conditions and wood quality. Principally making use of inter-species hybridisation by means of controlled cross–breeding, clones for quality wood and for energy production are selected and propagated.
Moreover, within a programme aimed at maintaining biodiversity, large poplar and willow germplasm collections are established and maintained.
Through the adoption of biotechnologies breeding programmes are optimised. Having developed micro-propagation techniques, recombinant DNA technology is used to obtain transgenic plants which are resistant to parasites and herbicides, transforming the clones selected on the basis of their productive capacity.
Biology and entomology
Research is carried out on the biology of and control strategies for the most important animal pests (particularly insects) in poplar cultivation and arboriculture for timber production and on the resistance mechanisms of salicaceae to insect attack.
The study of insects as biological indicators for the environment is one aspect of the research work.
Plant disease and pest control
The CRA-PLF is involved in the monitoring and study of the epidemiology of the most dangerous epidemic diseases, with a view to keeping the spread of those already extant in the territory under control and for timely verification of the possible introduction of new disease agents. The biology of the main fungi which attack salicaceae are studied, in order to identify the most effective control strategies with the least environmental impact.
Particular attention is paid to host–parasite–environment interaction and the mechanisms which regulate it, both in relation to cultivated poplar clones and to those in the course of selection.
Arboriculture for wood production and biomass
Research is carried out to increase knowledge of the influence of genetic characteristics, environmental factors and cultivation processes on the growth and production of clones destined to the production of either quality wood or biomass, with particular reference to identifying the most suitable planting methods and the most favourable spacings for nursery cultivation, for traditional plantations and plantations for biomass.
The cultivation model is adapted to the clone type and site conditions, as well as the assortments to be produced in relation to the needs of the industrial end–user.
Studies are undertaken aimed at identifying plant–environment interaction, in order to adopt sustainable plantation and cultivation techniques, both for plantations for timber production and as regards phytoremediation projects for the regeneration of wasteland, in harmony with land policy and the need for environmental sustainability. The effects of climate change are studied through the interpretation of physiological and radiometric parameters on the plants.
Wood quality and technology
Research is carried out into possible juvenile–adult correlations between the main characteristics of wood, for early selection of poplars, and tests are performed to evaluate the wood quality of clones which have potential for registration in the RNCF (national registry of forest material).
Research is also carried out into the development of alternative industrial uses for poplar wood.
Economics and statistical surveys
Economic studies are developed in the context of three specific areas of enquiry:
- the evaluation of the profitability of wood arboriculture and poplar growing having regard to cultivation models and to environmental and agricultural business parameters;
- estimating demand for poplar-wood in various industrial processing sectors;
- evaluation of the effects of land policy on industry choices and on the general economy of the poplar sector. In order to monitor poplar cultivation, studies are undertaken for developing and applying new inventory techniques, based on remote sensing.