A New Angle on Orchards

appleA Cornell-U.S. government research team is poised to transform the shape of trees and orchards to come, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program. The project, led by Kenong Xu, assistant professor of horticulture at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, will target the genes that control branch growth in peach and apple trees. Tree architecture is a hierarchical affair, with upper shoots and branch tips inhibiting the growth of those below them, and over time mutations in the gene network have produced beautiful and functional variations in branch angle: apple trees that weep, are prostrate, or rise in a straight column. A breakthrough in optimizing the angle of branches would allow high-density planting in orchards for more efficient use of land space, improved productivity, and increased industry profitability and sustainability.