The combined impacts of climate change, soil erosion, deforestation, pollution, population growth and resource depletion require urgent attention in instituting regenerative agricultural practices worldwide.
This is particularly the case in NW Europe where the current farming paradigm is becoming obsolete due to pressures from many fronts.
A new way forward has become necessary using agroecology wherein agroforestry is a key component.
Paulownia species are indigenous to China and have been used as an agroforestry tree for over 2600 years due to their many positive attributes and multifaceted uses.
Over the last four decades, the use of Paulownia intercropping systems have been established on up to three million hectares on the North China Plain and the species has been introduced as a plantation crop on all inhabited continents being one of fastest growing hardwood species in the world with up to six meters growth per year possible under optimal conditions. Paulownia, in particular P. tomentosa has been planted as an ornamental tree in NW Europe since the early 1800s but has not been considered as a possible commercial species in the region until the last few years.
This study set out to explore whether Paulownia species could be suitable as an agroforestry species in intercropping systems on a field scale in NW Europe using methods consisting of literature review, secondary data analysis, and interviews with experts and growers.
Furthermore, two case studies were carried out from existing commercial operations growing Paulownia in the focus area. Specific areas covered to assess suitability included a review of species and cultivars, ecological requirements, planting and growing techniques, invasiveness risk and market research into the timber product based on data from EU and abroad.
In addition to the species assessment, a review was carried out identifying the main barriers to the adoption of agroforestry in NW Europe as part of a broader overview and analysing how Paulownia species could possibly have added advantages in overcoming some of these barriers.
The results indicated that Paulownia species and hybrids could grow successfully as a commercial agroforestry crop in NW Europe based on data gathered from existing sites in the focus area established since 2009 where high survival rates and growth rates greater than 1 m per year were reported.
No particular species or hybrid was identified as most suitable for agroforestry in the focus area but differences were confirmed depending on country of origin and propagation method. It was confirmed that species/hybrid selection, propagation method, site establishment, management practices in maintenance and pruning are critical factors to take into account in order to achieve timber of high quality.
Invasiveness risk in NW Europe is assessed to be very low due to low summer temperatures and the use of sterile hybrid clones in agroforestry rather than P. tomentosa.
Research showed that there is presently no established market in NW Europe for the timber but that interest in the unique properties of the wood is increasing in EU and the potential exists for profitable niche market in the future in particular for slow grown wood to be sold either in Europe or overseas.
The study concludes that Paulownia species’ actual performance under local field conditions, adaptability and its diverse products and services fulfil most of the attributes of an ideal agroforestry tree and has the potential to be used more widely in NW European farming systems with the recommendation that further field trials be carried out into finding the most suitable species/hybrids in addition to increased dissemination of knowledge to farmers about the species.
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