Using genetics to grow the perfect Christmas tree

Fraser fir seeds are crucial to high-quality Christmas trees

January 7, 2020 

Every Christmas tree seed is a gamble.

If you put up a natural Christmas tree in your house, think about what makes for the perfect tree. Super green and holds onto its needles? Check. Holds up well for the holidays? Check.

North Carolina’s Christmas tree farmers are also making plans for the perfect tree. And they are turning to an orchard in Ashe County for a glimpse of what that tree will look like. Here’s why: almost 90% of North Carolina growers use Christmas tree seedlings from nurseries in the Pacific Northwest. And since most of the seedlings are started from seeds that come from the wild, there’s no way of knowing if the seeds will grow into a good tree or a bad one.

What’s worse, it takes Fraser firs almost ten years to mature. That’s a lot of expensive uncertainty.

“What North Carolina Christmas tree growers need is a reliable source of certified seeds that have known parents and have maintained their genetic purity,” said Brad Edwards, an integrated pest management assistant with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Ashe County. “Right now,” he said, “there’s no certified seed for Fraser fir.”

Using genetics to grow the perfect seed

So researchers with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture are using genetics to grow the perfect Christmas tree. The study subjects are Fraser firs growing on a 5.5-acre Christmas tree orchard at the Upper Mountain Research Station at Laurel Springs in Ashe County. Fraser firs are one of the most popular Christmas trees and Ashe County is the nation’s number one county for Christmas tree production.

The trees are only two-to-four feet tall now and are the result of almost 20 years of work by scientists to remove that portion of the seed population that produce trees with less desirable qualities. They get rid of the bad trees to produce trees that are more reliable.

“Ultimately, we want farmers to be able to select seeds from the orchards based on the tree's parents’ performance,” said Jeff Owen, an NC State Extension Christmas tree specialist who helped with the orchard project. “If a farmer wants trees with optimum needle retention, they can get seeds from that grouping. If they want trees with more uniform growth or a faster growth rate, they can get that those characteristics as well, because each parent is known.”

The orchard has 1,400 trees growing and staffers are taking care to provide the trees with everything that is needed: disease and insect control, ground cover management, water and fertilizers. The research station has a long history of helping North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry grow to be second in the nation, behind only Oregon. It’s worth $86 million. There are currently 50 million Fraser firs growing on 25,000 acres in North Carolina.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Owen said, “but we are going to baby this along and watch these trees grow – and to aim for the first seed harvest in 2030.”

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.

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