tribute to my father

Vic Steenackers (°1928 -†2010) was born in Weelde in the Campines (Belgium), near the border with the Netherlands. The Campines, in the northeastern part of Flanders, at that time was a poor, sandy region, characterized by moorland, forests that consisted of  pines (poles for use in the coalmines), oaks and beeches ; grassland (cheep) and fields of rey, oats, ...

His father Jozef (°1890 - †1963) , headmaster of the local school, also teached after schooltime the children of the farmers : during his emprisonment (29/09/1917- Liberation) - being caught by the occupier in the Great War while smuggling messages to a telegraphpost- he had written a course in horti- and agriculture.

During his childhood, Vic explored nature while playing, fishing and poaching rabbits and squirrels, together with the brother of the girl he  admired.

September 1940, Vic went to the Jezuit   Sint Jozef College at Turnhout, until today known as the most rigourous boarding school in Flanders. Moreover,  War made live even harder. September 1943 as the College was occupied by German soldiers, Jezuits and students moved to the Norbertines abbey of Tongerlo, where Fathers had their own farm, playgrounds and forests. It was a period of happiness for the students, who found in the Norbertine-Fathers "partners in pleasure". July 1946, they finished the Rhetorica.

Vic went to the Catholic University at Leuven and graduated in 1952 as an Engineer in Forestry.

From august 1952 until april 1954 he served as a Lieutenant in the Belgian Air Force.


Oktober 1954, Vic started working at the Poplar Institute of the match company Unal at Geraardsbergen. Whole of his professional career was devoted to tree breeding, including overcoming all resistance and pitfalls that might have caused a discontinuity in his work.

May 1956 he married that girl Joanna Keustermans. Between 1957 and 1971 they gave birth to nine children.

  They gave him 23 grandchildren


At the age of 82 years, Vic fell down while admiring one of his trees. After a relatively short period of disease, surrounded by his family, Vic passed away in 2010, 27 august.

 Vics professional career

Already from the 1920's the swedish match making company Union Allumettière (Unal) (*) started buying terrains in Belgium to grow poplars, under the direction of Harald Nordvik, assisted by Albert Quairière, by Paul Flon (1938), and later on by Marcel Govers and Maurits Herpelinck. In 1963 Unal owned about 1.500 hectares of forested area. Initially they used different local clones of Euramericana, such as 'Grijze van Achel', ' Zwarte van Kampenhout', 'Blauwe van Veurne', ... Many trials on planting distances and consequent thinnings were established. 'Robusta' ('discovered' around 1895) became one of the most planted clones. However soon problems occurred as these clones were too sensitive to different foliar diseases, Dothichiza populea, poplar canker,...

K.E. Hedborg, the swedish director of Unal, soon felt  the need for an own scientific research program (**). In 1948 the "Institut de populiculture" with their own offices, laboratory  and greenhouses, in front of the Unal factories was ready to start breeding of Populus spp.  As the match industry used only a limited amount of poplar wood and other poplar wood consuming factories and all  landowners cultivating poplar were involved by possible results, the research was for many years supported by I.R.S.I.A. (Institut pour l'Encouragement de la Recherche scientifique dans l'Industrie et l'Agriculture).

Carl Muhle Larsen, amanuensis at the National Arboretum at Hørsholm (Denmark), was engaged to manage the institute, from february 1th 1949 on. Recommended by his professor in genetics, Prof. Heuts, Vic started his career in tree breeding in oktober 1954 as an assistant of Carl Muhle Larsen. Work continued in a mutual respect and could rely on the support and independance -  greatly appreciated by Vic - given by the general staff of Unal and S.T.A.B.. In 1971 C.M. Larsen retired and Vic followed him as director of the Poplar Institute.

Whereas Giacomo Piccarolo (Casale Monferrato-Italy) at that time selected his famous clones (e.g. I214, I488, ...) starting from  seeds collected on individual trees in plantations, the thread throughout the whole breeding work at Geraardsbergen from the beginning was the collecting and maintenance of an important base collection of individuals of the different pure poplar species used. Seeds and flowering branches were received by the many international contacts within the S.T.A.B. group and with research colleagues in Europe, U.S.A, Canada, Japan... From the beginning P. deltoides and P. nigra were the main species used to create a vast gene-pool, and to be used in the breeding work. A collection of  P. trichocarpa and P. maximowiczii followed. P. tremula and P. tremuloides soon were avoided.

An important breakthrough was the (re)discovery by Vic in 1959 of indigenous Populus nigra trees in the Dender valley.

Variability in all possible properties - the understanding of it -  within and between  the pure species, together with the dioecious character of most Poplar spp. and "the law of large numbers" were considered to be the basis of a succesfull breeding program.

Wolfgang Von Wettstein, at the Kaiser Wilhelm institut- Müncheberg, had shown allready around 1929 that grafted mature branches from poplar can be made to flower and to give ripe seed after controlled pollination in greenhouses. This method became common use for breeding F1 aspen hybrids in Scandinavia, and was taken over at Geraardsbergen. It  speeded up the study on the transmission of inheritable properties. Not only the study of the parental trees, but also the propagation of their F1 descendants and very soon F2 generation and backcrossings became common use at the Institute.

Throughout Vics career millions and millions  of seedlings were produced and consequently tested for disease and insect resistance, photoperiodic response, adaptability to climate and soil conditions, vigourosity, tree form, rootability, wood quality,.. Vics strength in this tremendous and monkish work (as he called it) was his ability to find, and to collaborate with, experts within his team and throughout the world in all concerned domains.

He recognized the importance of each working member in his staff, from the workmen in the greenhouses and tree nurseries, over the accountant (paper work was not Vics' favourite activity) at the office, to the biologist and forest engineer in the lab and the field.

Famous in this international context is his all time cooperation with the phytopathologists Michel and Suzanne Ridé, in restraining poplar canker. Together they achieved in the breeding and selection of poplar clones that up to today are fully resistant to poplar canker.

Vic also guided the the scientific activities of Swedish Match in France, during the period +/- 1960-1970, and in Italy from 1962 until 1972. Within Swedish Match permanent scientific contacts were established with related companies in Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Denmark, India, Portugal, Sweden. Vic went to all these countries, except for India.

Vics international recognition came at the end of the 1960's. In 1968 Vic travelled for almost 7 weeks together with Rob Koster (Wageningen, Netherlands, <- see pic) to the U.S.A. and Canada, through the natural distribution area of P. deltoides, accompanied by local foresters and famous tree breeders, to be mentioned Burton V. Barnes (Michigan), Raymond J. Gascon (Louisiana), Jalmer "Joe" Jokela  (Illinois), Scott S. Pauley (Minnesota), Ernst J. Schreiner (New Hampshire), CarlHeimburger and Louis Zsuffa (Ontario). As Schreiner wrote in 1970 "It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun;and originality has been defined as the art of remembering what you hear and forgetting where you heard it", Vic was very well aware of the value of the work that allready was done, not only in poplar breeding but more generally in plant breeding as well as in agriculture, as in horticulture and forestry.

No doubt Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, Gijsbertus Houtzagers, C. Syrach Larsen , Bruce Zobel, Hermann Nilsson-Ehle, Norman Borlaug, and so many others were on the writers list of the young Vic. Some of them he ever met.

 "Poplars can be bred to order", after Ernst Schreiner (1949), became his professional motto.

... And who decided to visit "Preservation Hall" at New Orleans...

In 1969 he presented at the NATO-IUFRO conference "Biology of rust resistance in forest trees" at Moscow (Idaho) two papers, that summarized the work until then done at Geraardsbergen : "the state of knowledge in breeding rust resistant poplars" and "breeding poplars resistant to various diseases".

April 1972 the famous poplar "Unal" clones, that resulted from crossings made in 1960-1962, were released on the market, to the benefit of poplar growers throughout the world, with names such as 'Unal', 'Beaupré', 'Boelare', 'Ghoy',...Clones combined all favourable properties, and some could be considered to belong to the fastest growing trees of the temperate climatezone of the Northern hemisphere ; but some of them will later be victim of their own success...

Besides these 'Unal' clones many other tens of new hybrids and clones have succesfully been introduced in the different countries where Swedish Match was interested to produce the necessary wood for the different local match factories.


Meanwhile, in oktober 1971 Lennart Hedborg, at that time president of Union Allumettière, announced to Vic, that Unal and Swedish Match had decided to stop all scientific research, and this because and only because of economical reasons. Bothered by many moral, social and administrative troubles, but blessed with an enormous perseverance and due to his network (Linkedin avant la lettre) Vic obtained in january 1973, but this was realised only in january 1976, from the Minister of Agriculture Leo Tindemans the principal decision that the Poplar Institute will be taken over by the Belgian Government.

From 1971 till 1976 Lennart Hedborg, morally supporting all his employees, repeatedly obtained the necessary funding to save his fathers' realisation. All of the genetical collection owned by Unal was generously given tot the new National Poplar Research Centre. Vic remained head of the Institute that in 1989 was transformed to the Flemish Institute of Forestry and Game Management, nowadays INBO. After his retirement (1993) Vic became Professor of forestry and forest tree improvement at Leuven University.

Vic became very active in several international organisations :

-) International Poplar Commission (FAO) where he was for 12 years president of the Working Party involved with breeding of poplars and willows. In september 1988 in Beijing (China) he was elected President of the Executive Committee of IPC and remained in this function until 2000.

-) IUFRO where he was active in several groups and president of the Poplars and willows Working Party for 12 years

-) IEA  where he was active as the Belgian representant within the Forestry Department and involved in the exchange and conservation of genetical material of Alnus (1983-1985), Populus and Salix (1986-1991).

Indeed, Vic commonly is known as an poplar expert. However lot of his time was devoted to the successfull breeding of several other forest tree species : Alnus spp., Salix spp., Ulmus spp., Prunus avium, Fraxinus excelsior, Platanus spp, Quercus spp., ...

He guided many groups of interested scientists and forest owners through the tree nursery at Grimminge, and the experimental plots everywhere.

He shared his knowledge with everyone who was interested, and has welcomed, supported and encouraged so many young scientists from anywhere in the world.

He recognized the possibilities of biotechnology. Mid 1980's he was approached by Plant Genetic Systems to try out trangenic poplar trees ; as Prof Van Montagu later wrote : "Your immediate positive response was really a demonstration of vision and of confidence in science".

Vic was a visionary scientist, and an extremely gifted observer. Long before "biodiversity" became commonplace, he quoted :
"...It is extremely important and necessary to recognize the existence and evolution, as well on a local as on a  regional, national and international scale, of the populations within all tree species.."
and with his global view he added
"... and of the populations of their divers pathogens...".
In this matter, he also was occupied with realizing and continuously expanding genebanks of different tree species. He rediscovered and established a collection of the indigenous, in Belgium almost extincted, 'Populus nigra'. But at the same time he noticed and emphasized on the extreme poverty in species of the Belgian (and European) forests :
"... Efficient tree breeding finally will result in  a most efficient way of nature conservation...".
"...National borders are no Berlin Wall. Forests wherever are genetically rich reservoirs of all kinds of  treespecies, susceptive to further breeding..."

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