Each Christmas, families across North Carolina and the country embark on a journey to find the perfect Christmas tree. They walk tree by tree through lots looking for the right fullness, an even triangular shape, a sweet piney aroma, and soft needles that don’t seem to fall off easily.
For many, it is the last characteristic, known as needle retention, which is most important. Consumers site messiness as one of the most common reasons for not purchasing a live Christmas tree.
For decades, farmers have refined the skill of identifying high-quality trees by visually examining the most desired characteristics. But it takes up to eight years to distinguish a marketable tree, which means eight years of costs and resources associated with cultivation.
With the help of scientists in the College of Natural Resources, farmers may soon be looking inside of the tree rather than outside to identify marketable family lines. Dr. Lilian Matallana, a postdoctoral research scholar in Forestry and Environmental Resources, spends her days in a lab in Biltmore Hall examining the genetic makeup of Fraser Firs, which represent over 96% of all Christmas trees produced in North Carolina.
Need for Christmas trees earlier in the season grows
With the market for Christmas trees beginning in November, farmers start cutting trees as early as October—prior to a critical point in a tree’s development. Between October 15 and November 15, trees cultivated in North Carolina are typically exposed to the first cold snap of the year. Trees harvested before this first exposure to cold have been shown to have less needle retention.
The capacity for needle retention after harvest is not only critical for consumers who dislike messy tress, it makes tress suitable for shipping long distances and ensures a quality product reaches Christmas tree lots.
“Once you cut a tree the conditions change. You shorten the time the plant can survive. But we see that some trees have the ability to retain needles independent of environmental factors, so we know it is something in the genes,” Dr. Matallana said.
Gene identification cuts cultivation time of viable trees significantly
Dr. Matallana’s goal is to eventually create a list of unique genes that are associated with needle retention. Farmers will then be able to test their trees to see if that gene is active.
“If they can do a test, farmers will know in a short about of time which tress have marketable characteristics, and they don’t have to wait eight years and use fertilizer, farms, people, water, land, etc., to figure out which tress are high quality,” Dr. Matallana said. Farmers will then be able to actively cultivate these family lines ensuring high-value trees year after year.
Christmas tree production is a $100 million-a-year-industry in North Carolina. The state has over 300 Christmas tree growers, with approximately 37 million trees growing on over 32,000 acres. It is the second largest producer of trees in the country, behind Oregon, and produces over 20% of real trees in the United States.