Branch development in the lower part of stem is critical to both early stem growth and wood quality of the most valuable section of tree, and its regulation through planting density has always been greatly concerned. Here the effect of planting density on branch development was examined in a five-year-old plantation of Betula alnoides
with six planting densities (625, 833, 1111, 1250, 1667, and 2500 stems per hectare (sph)) in Guangdong Province, South China. Branch quantity (number, proportion, and density), morphology (diameter, length, and angle), position (height and orientation), and branch status (dead or alive) were investigated for 54 dominant or co-dominant trees under six treatments of planting density after the growth of each tree was measured. Factors influencing branch development were also explored by mixed modelling. The results showed that the mean tree heights of 1250 and 1667 sph treatments were higher than those of other planting density treatments. The quantity of live branches decreased with increasing planting density. However, planting density had no significant effect on the number of all branches, and there existed no remarkable difference in branch number and proportion among four orientations. As for branch morphology, only the largest branch diameter had a significantly negative correlation with planting density. In addition, high planting density significantly increased the height of the largest branch within the crown. Mixed effects models indicated that branch diameter, length, and angle were closely correlated with each other, and they were all in positively significant correlation to the branch height at the stem section below six meters. It was concluded that properly increasing planting density will promote natural pruning, improve early branch control, and be beneficial for wood production from the most valuable section of the stem.
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