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How Science Is Building A Better (And More Resilient) Christmas Tree

It's all about needle retention. Scientists are breeding the Christmas trees of the future, which are resistant to disease and still look nice in your living room.

[Image: Pines via Shutterstock]

Mr. Christmas Tree, as Gary Chastagner of Washington State University is known among friends and colleagues, doesn’t have a ton of competition for the moniker. He leads one of the handful of academic research groups around the world devoted to improving the world’s body of knowledge about farming Christmas trees.

Christmas trees seem quaint—the traditional nostalgic image involves an axe, a forested backyard, and some parent-child bonding time. But the vast majority of Christmas trees are farmed, and given that the trees are part of more than a $1 billion a year industry, tree farming is an important business in large tree-producing states like Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. To keep that business going, scientists are attempting to breed new varieties of trees that can withstand changes brought on by climate change, and also hold up to the new demands of owners, who are keeping trees in their houses for longer than ever.

That business has had a rough year. In Iowa, disease, drought and deer are a problem. Vermont farmers are battling summer flash floods and heat waves. In Florida, record high temperatures have slowed purchases. And in North Carolina, an unusually wet summer has devastated some Fraser fir farms with root rot—a fungus that invades wet, poorly drained soils and causes mature trees to die. No fungicide works against it. (Press attention to this problem has also caused sellers to panic because customers mistakenly think trees for sale are "moldy." The fungus attacks the roots, and these trees never make it to the store).

Is Mr. Christmas Tree going to need to save Christmas? Probably not. The fir trees that make the best Christmas trees aren’t in quite that much trouble, and they are actually doing fine this year in the Northwest. That's where many farmers have started to plant non-native species, such as Turkish and Nordmann firs, which can better resist root rot. But they are under growing environmental duress, and Christmas-loving consumers want only the best trees.

"We’ve had an extremely wet year. They’ve had 30 inches of rain in a month. There are some questions as to whether global warming will make this worse," says Jill Sidebottom, a Christmas tree expert with the North Carolina State cooperative extension service. "When root rot, also called phytophthora, first became a problem in the 1970s, frigid winters would kill the fungus in the soil." But the winters have warmed since then. "If it’s less cold, you don’t have the same die out," she says.

Both at Washington State and North Carolina State, the hunt has been on, especially in the last decade, to build more resilient (but still house-ready) Christmas trees that can withstand these diseases. A plant pathologist for more than 30 years, Chastagner been collecting trees all over the U.S. in the name of discovering the species and individual, genetically gifted specimens that thrive and make great Christmas trees—and understanding why others do not. "It’s about understanding which species of trees or sources of a given species are well-adapted to an area, and what their disease and insect problems are. And then, as important, it’s looking at what’s the post-harvest quality of those trees," he says (i.e. whether needles dry out and shed easily).

That search led to Nordmann and Turkish firs becoming decent, disease-resistant alternatives to the U.S. native Noble and Fraser firs. The latter two, with their high needle retention, lovely fragrance, and strong branches, make perfect Christmas specimens—but they are also highly susceptible to the disease. Farmers in Oregon and Washington are increasingly turning to these European and Asian alternatives in certain soils, Chatagner says. In North Carolina, researchers have tried grafting the Fraser tree onto the more resistant foreign tree rootstock, but that’s proven to be difficult, says Sidebottom.

The search is now getting a big boost. Because Christmas trees are seen as more of a luxury item, the industry has never been a hugely funded research area. But in December, Chastagner, along with collaborators at North Carolina State, as well as in Michigan, California, and Penn State, received a $1.3 million grant from USDA to search for the genetic traits that promote resistance to the disease. The idea is now to find those genes, and develop Fraser fir trees that are the best of both worlds: resilient, practical, and beautiful. Doing this could also help reduce the number of pesticides and fungicides used.

Most recently, Chastagner’s focus has been genetically screening his unique collection of specimens to find the traits that lead to good "needle retention" after harvesting. The goal is to help seed orchards turn out the best possible seeds for trees that will retain their needles.

No one likes a messy Christmas tree, especially these days. "I was born in 1948. When I was a kid, the trees commonly showed up in our house a few days before Christmas and were taken down a few days after. Now, people have them for five or six weeks," he says.

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