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Which Rainforest Trees Grow Fastest?

by:Annika Keeley.

Imagine your goal is to grow lumber in the tropical lowlands of Central America. After all, wood is a beautiful, versatile, renewable resource and growth rates of plants in the wet tropics are only second to tropical coral reefs. Therefore, growing lumber here makes a lot of sense. But, of course you will want to be able to harvest the trees sometime in your life time, so you need fast growing species. Besides producing lumber you also want to contribute to preserving the amazing biodiversity in the region. Therefore you pass on growing non-native species like teak and monocultures and look for a mix of native species. There are many to choose from. In the 350 ha reserve of Tirimbina, there are over 300 species of trees documented. At the 1500 ha reserve of La Selva Biological Station next door about 1000 (!!!) species of trees have been recorded. So which species of trees should you plant or promote through forest management? What kind of conditions should you create to promote maximum tree growth?

To find out, Bryan Finegan with two colleagues measured the diameter at breast height of all trees in three study plots at Tirimbina . In one of the plots, tree species that are known to have a good market value were given more space to grow (liberation treatment); in a second plot, the trees of the middle stories of the forest were removed (shelterwood treatment); and in a third plot, timber was harvested some years ago, but no further management actions were taken (logging-only treatment). The researchers also described the trees with respect to how much sun the tree crown receives, how well the crown is formed, and if there is competition from lianas.

Not surprising, trees grew faster when the crown was well formed, got a lot of light, and had few lianas growing in and on them. Light is something all plants in the jungle have to compete for – the more successful they are the better they grow. Accordingly, species growing in the under- and middle story were mostly slow-growing (around 1 mm increase in diameter per year), and species that form the canopy or even grow above the canopy were mostly fast growing (around16 mm increase in diameter per year). All of the very fast growing species were pioneer plants, the plants that first grow in disturbed areas and thus can begin the process of forest regeneration. However, not all pioneer species grow fast. Fast growth could only occur in the liberation and the shelterwood treatments, because these treatments created the necessary light conditions. The information from this research has been used to suggest species of trees suitable for use in reforestation and plantations of native species. Several native species are now grown commercially in the Sarapiqui region, among them cebo (Vochysia guatemalensis), botarrama (Vochysia ferruginea), pilón (Hieronima alchornoides), roble coral (Terminalia amazonica), and manú (Minquartia guianensis).

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Finegan, B., M. Camacho, and N. Zamora. 1999. Diameter increment patterns among 106 tree species in a logged and silviculturally treated Costa Rican rain forest. Forest Ecology and Management 121: 159-176.

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