Relationships between seedling height and nodes

Updated April 2018

Seedling height is positively correlated with the number of nodes, or internodes, produced along the leading shoot. If this relationship is robust it can be used to predict the number of nodes, hence the onset of the adult stage of development, on the basis of measured seedling heights.  

Measurements at Ystwyth Valley Apple Breeders

To characterise this relationship under our outdoor growing conditions, we are measuring seedling height (cm) and counting the number of leaf nodes along the single leading shoot at the end of each growing season. We are treating all seedlings from a given crossing year as a single data set, regardless of parental genotypes.

 

The results shown below cover measurements to the end of the 2017 growing season, on seedlings from crosses made between 2010 and 2016. Mean values (± standard deviation) are given for seedling heights (Table 1), cumulative number of leaf nodes (Table 2), number of nodes produced annually (Table 3) and mean distance between successive nodes (Table 4).   

Apple seedling heights during first five years of growth
Table 1. Mean seedling heights (± standard deviation) after each successive year’s growth.  
Number of  leaf nodes on apple seedlings during first five years of growth
Table 2. Mean number of leaf nodes (± standard deviation) after each successive year’s growth. 
Number of internodes produced annually by apple seedlings
Table 3. Mean number of nodes (± standard deviation) produced annually.  
Mean internodal distances of apple seedlings
Table 4. Mean inter-nodal distances (± standard deviation) after successive years of growth.

The results show a marked effect of crossing year on mean seedling heights and on the number of nodes attained after one year of growth. Whilst this variation is partly attributable to differences in weather patterns, significant improvements in cultural practice were also made between 2011 and 2015. Consequently, the growth rates of seedlings from crosses made from 2013 onwards reflect our general expectation, with average heights across a seedling population of 76-100 cm and 44-49 leaf nodes after the first year of growth. Similarly, we expect an average of at least 77 nodes by the end of the second year’s growth, and an average of at least 122 nodes by the end of the fourth year's growth.  

Graph showing proportion of seedlings attaining 77 internodes after successive years of growth

The increasing proportions of seedlings attaining 77 internodes (transition from the juvenile phase to the adult vegetative phase) after successive years of growth, between 2012 and the end of the 2017 growing season, are shown in the bar chart opposite.

 

Under our growing conditions none of the seedlings have reached the adult vegetative phase after one year’s growth, but over 50% of seedlings from crosses made in 2013, 2014 and 2015 reached this phase after two years of growth. The upward trend in the proportions with successive crossing years reflects the improvements in cultural practice made between 2011 and 2015. 

Graph of proportion of seedlings attaining 122 internodes after successive years of growth

The increasing proportions of seedlings achieving >122 internodes (transition from adult vegetative to adult reproductive phase of development) after successive years of growth are shown in the bar chart opposite. More than 50% of seedlings from crosses made in 2011, 2012 and 2013 achieved this transition after four years of growth. However, 75% of seedlings from crosses made in 2014 achieved >122 internodes after just three years of growth.

Frequency distributions for seedling height and number of internodes after two years of growth are shown opposite, for seedlings produced by crosses made in 2013. 

Frequency diagram for apple seedling heights after two years of growth
Frequency diagram for number of internodes on apple seedlings after two years of growth

Both traits approximate to normal distributions, with wide variation around the mean, with heights ranging from 20-240 cm and number of internodes from 30-120. 

The frequency distribution for numbers of internodes becomes flatter and more dispersed around the mean value during the first few years of growth. This trend is illustrated in the figure opposite for seedlings from crosses made in 2013, after one, two, three and four years of growth.

The relationship between seedling height and number of internodes for this data set is shown opposite. Linear regression of internode number on height showed a strong positive correlation between the variables (R2 = 0.79).

 

However, the spread of data around the line of best fit suggests that using height measurements to predict the number of internodes on the basis of regression equations is unlikely to be very accurate.    

Effects of damage by thrips

Thrips (possibly Western Flower Thrip) caused serious damage to the terminal bud and expanding leaves on the main leader of many of our first year and second year seedlings during 2014 and 2015 (see photos below). Severe stunting of extension growth was accompanied by profuse, undesirable, lateral shoot production (right image), presumably triggered by the damage to the terminal bud and breaking of apical dominance. In some cases repeated, corrective, summer pruning was required to re-establish a leader. Damage was less severe during 2016.

Thrip damage to terminal bud of apple seedling
Profuse lateral shoot growth after thrip damage to terminal bud of apple seedling

 

Seedlings from crosses made in 2013 were scored for thrip damage at the end of their second year of growth, classing them as 'severe', 'moderate' or 'undamaged'. Severe damage reduced both seedling height and number of internodes as shown in the figure opposite and the accompanying table below.

 

Differences between the means for severely damaged seedlings and those for moderate or undamaged seedlings were significant at p<0.001. The differences between moderate and undamaged seedlings were statistically insignificant. 

Conclusions

Based on measurements to the end of the 2017 growing season, our conclusions regarding apple seedling growth under the prevailing environmental conditions in West Wales are:

  • Average seedlings heights of 90-100 cm with 44-49 nodes are attainable after one year of growth. This compares favourably with heights of 20-60 cm expected under good field conditions according to MAFF (1963).
  • Averages of 77 nodes or more are attainable after two years of growth.
  • Averages of 122 nodes or more are attainable after four years of growth.
  • Whilst a few seedlings may flower as early as year three of growth, well over 50% of seedlings should definitely flower during year five; these flowers having been initiated in the previous summer.
  • The annual increments in seedling height and number of nodes decrease after the first year of growth. This underlines the importance of maximising seedling growth during the first year.
  • The average distance between successive nodes is about 2 cm, so a rough estimate of the number of nodes on a seedling is given by dividing the height (cm) by two.
  • Damage by thrips causes significant reductions in seedling height and the number of internodes attained after two years of growth. This is not easily controlled.

We are continuing measurements during 2018 and beyond, focusing on the transition from ‘adult vegetative phase’ to ‘adult reproductive phase,’ once 122 nodes are achieved on the single leading shoot, and subsequent flowering rates.

Reference

MAFF. 1963. Fruit Tree Raising: Rootstocks and Propagation Bulletin 135. HMSO London. 4th ed. 52p.