Building a better Christmas tree

Researchers aims to cultivate a tree that will look beautiful, last in a $1 billion industry

Michael Tortorello / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 9, 2012 at 04:00AM

PUYALLUP, Wash. — A seven-foot evergreen will bear 350,000 needles, more or less. And if Gary Chastagner has his way this holiday season, precious few of them will end up on the parlor floor.

As a plant pathologist at Washington State University, Chastagner, 64, heads one of the nation’s half-dozen Christmas tree research labs.

Recent months have found Chastagner frittering away his time on a multistate, $1.3 million RNA-sequencing trial. By sampling trees he has tested for needle retention, Chastagner and his colleagues hope to discover the genes associated with shedding.

You may have noticed that Christmas sales seem to pop up at the mall just a few days after the Fourth of July.

Partly as a result of this calendar shift, a third of this year’s Christmas tree purchases will come from a species called “artificial,” according to market research from the American Christmas Tree Association.

The corresponding riddle for Christmas tree farmers is how to cultivate a tree that will last from Thanksgiving until after New Year’s.

This is where Chastagner’s latest research comes in. “It’s probably the largest single-funded Christmas tree project in U.S. history,” he said, sitting in his cluttered office. “Some people in the public would ask, ‘Why would we spend money on this?’ Well, the Christmas tree industry is a $1 billion industry.”

The tree trade group estimates that some 15,000 farms and plantations will sell more than 20 million trees this year. Perhaps a quarter of these will come from 10- or 15-acre farms that use basic management techniques and primitive equipment, said Dennis Tompkins, an arborist who edited the American Christmas Tree Journal for almost two decades. The largest and most sophisticated operations will harvest almost a million trees a year from an 8,500-acre plantation and remove them by helicopter.

For 32 years, Chastagner has conducted much of the most important research into Christmas-tree cultivation. He has examined Phytophthora root rot and the Swiss needle cast — both pernicious conifer scourges. And he has carefully analyzed the optimal shape and volume of a Christmas tree stand.

The locus of these important efforts, it turns out, is a concrete-block outbuilding, half-bunkered into a hillock. Chastagner calls it the Dungeon. “We’re standing in an old cistern that was not being used,” he said. “One of us talked about putting a racquetball court in here.”

Inside the Dungeon stood tables stacked with wire-and-wood racks. Each rack held hundreds of cut conifer branches — perhaps 5,000 in all — sticking up from their cells like quills in a dry inkwell. The whole open chamber was redolent with the stench of Christmas (or the fragrance, if you prefer).

This week’s samples of Fraser fir had arrived by express mail from John Frampton, a forestry geneticist at North Carolina State University. The broader project involved evaluating the mother trees for growth rate and habit, date of bud break, disease resistance and consumer preference.

Today’s experiment, however, was so particular as to seem monomaniacal. A solitary technician, Kathy Riley, was counting the needles that fell off each and every branch in the giant room.

Riley plucked an 8-inch-long sample from the rack and rubbed her bare fingers up and down the stems from the last two years’ worth of growth. Her palms were coated in resin.

Then, like a bingo caller, she intoned a pair of numbers: a percentage estimate of the needles that had ended up on the floor, based on a scale from one to seven. A data entry assistant plugged these numbers into a spreadsheet that appeared awesome in its size and breathtaking in its tedium.

Chastagner pointed to a few of the almost naked branches, which had porcupined their needles. “You see some pretty poor needle retention,” he said. “Also some winners, some with almost no needle loss.”

Both types of samples were useful. What the RNA detectives hoped to find was the single nucleotide polymorphism, or the variation, that controlled needle drop. One plant would have it and another wouldn’t. Scientists could employ this information to develop a genomic field test. Then cone collectors in wild forests or managed stands might quickly screen a tree before harvesting seed stock to sell to Christmas tree growers.

Ultimately, breeders could try to nurture a whole seed orchard of superior trees. But those maturing plants wouldn’t form cones and set seed for 30 years, Chastagner said. As if the run-up to Christmas weren’t long enough already.

Leftovers turned tradition

Until the 1970s, the Christmas tree found its way into the American household in a haphazard fashion, Tompkins said. “Wild culture,” he added, was the rule. Enterprising loggers would trek into the forests and haul to market whatever they found. On the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, this usually meant a rough-and-ready Douglas fir. The Catskills or Nova Scotia might yield spruce or balsam fir.

Yet the newly cleared woods did not grow back the same way. In the Pacific Northwest, Chastagner said, previously shaded understory plants like salal and huckleberry celebrated their Christmas good fortune by “going crazy,” and evergreens that made it through the tangle developed stunted lower branches.

The managed Christmas tree plantations of the 1950s and ’60s weren’t necessarily raising showpieces, either. A 1964 Cornell University survey found that more than half the plantation-grown trees were unsalable.

Many trees and seed cones were leftovers from timber stands. There, lumber companies preferred fast-growing trunks with few of the lateral branches that produce knots in boards. Where to hang all the Christmas balls remained a mystery beyond the scope of science.

A fine place to witness how the Christmas tree has evolved is Ken and JoAnn Scholz’s Snowshoe Evergreen. The 350-acre operation is just down the road from Chastagner’s office, and he drove over in a university-issue Chevy Blazer.

When the couple started in the business 40 years ago, Ken Scholz, 67, said: “You bought seed from whoever the hell would sell it to you. It was all in wild collections.”

The couple continues to operate a choose-and-cut lot and sells other trees to retailers. But Scholz does most of his volume as a contract seedling grower.

Nowadays, Christmas tree farmers typically choose seed from a specialist, who ships it directly to a forestry corporation like Weyerhaeuser. Here, the conifers will germinate into inch-tall plants called plugs.

Scholz and his team of 18 workers then transplant the finger-high conifers on their farm. A few years later, Snowshoe will deliver them to a distant plantation, where they will reach maturity. The whole rotation, from seed to Christmas tree stand, may take eight to 12 years.

The volume is incredible. “Each of these beds has 17,000 or 18,000 plants,” Scholz said — nothing special, he insisted. He pointed to the fields he stocked a month ago, in rows that stretch a quarter-mile. “Let’s put it this way: we just put in 1.7 million.”

Up close, the grid of little green twigs had the immaculately ordered appearance of needlepoint. One advanced North Carolina grower (“I’d rather not tell you who,” Scholz said) had supplied him with a special selection of Fraser fir.

Check out the tops, he said, and you’ll see a whorl of five buds instead of the typical three or four. In a year, he might lift the entire planting, bed by bed, sort and grade the seedlings, and re-transplant them with a more generous spacing.

Before then, he’ll fumigate the ground with a mix of methyl bromide and chloropicrin to control weeds and stave off pathogens. Tens of thousands of plants could be spoiled by a handful of infected seedlings. “It’s almost a must in this business,” Scholz said. “There’s so much I can’t control, like the weather. If someone is entrusting me to grow plants for them, I’ve got to use best practices.”

The American Christmas Tree Association likes to tout the environmental benefits of buying “real,” carbon-based trees instead of polyvinyl chloride replicants. Be that as it may, a Christmas tree plantation is decidedly not an organic farm.

Chastagner has conducted some preliminary research into organic growing practices, experimenting with a variety of natural weed blockers.

Beyond science

How big, then, is the organic Christmas tree market?

He answered without hesitation: “It doesn’t even register.”

When customers imagine a Christmas tree grower, they are probably picturing someplace like Bell’s Christmas Tree Farm, at the foot of the Catskills, a dozen miles west of New Paltz, N.Y.

Gordon Bell and his wife, Paula, live in a 1700s farmhouse at one end of the property, and their son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Lori Bell, recently built a home across the way. There is still a red milking barn and stone walls that crisscross the land, remnants of a three-generation dairy. The “U-cut” season starts the day after Thanksgiving and closes around noon on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus typically drops by each season to address his public.

The tree farm started almost as a lark, said Brian Bell, 38.

Gordon Bell, 66, agreed: “We didn’t know the first thing when we started this. Smart people take classes and learn what to do. We put trees in the ground and then started learning.”

On a cool morning not long ago that was either the end of summer or the beginning of fall, the Bell family piled into a green John Deere Gator utility vehicle and headed up Blitzen Boulevard to look at some trees. In Gordon Bell’s estimation, their Fraser and balsam firs have shown “exceptional needle retention.” Yet extreme weather (which Brian Bell said could also be called routine weather) is hard on the Frasers.

“They need to be on great drainage,” his father said. “But they need water. Figure out that one.”

The Bells have been trying to master the quirks of at least a dozen other varieties, some traditional, others exotic imports. The top of the Korean fir grows crookedly if you fertilize the plant. And the handsome Turkish fir seemed to be participating in a work slowdown.

“There are so many small things that people would never think of that make a big difference,” Gordon Bell said. “How they’re trimmed, the spacing, the origin of the seed, the amount of time, the upkeep to get them to be a salable tree.”

Lori Bell, 38, has some affection for the blue spruces, an old regional favorite. The needles will perform violence on her hands while she’s pruning, but the sturdy branches can support even the heaviest (and tackiest) of ornaments. And they’re virtually cat-proof. “You look out there, and 9 out of every 10 are perfect,” she said.

Brian Bell likes the scent of a Canaan fir, he said. But, in truth, the Bells can’t afford to be sentimental about a conical shrub. It’s the customer who looks at a well-groomed conifer and sees a Christmas tree.

A seedling costs 80 cents, Brian Bell explained. And every U-cut tree on the lot, whatever the size, sells for $43. His concern is making sure that nothing goes wrong in between.

If you really want to know how a Christmas tree farmer picks his own tree, Gordon Bell is happy to share.

“Whatever we have that’s in the way of the mower,” he said. “That’s what goes into the house.”

Tips: shopping for a fir

Would you pluck an oyster from the bay, park it on platter of ice, and then wait a month to slurp it down? So what makes you think you can keep a Christmas tree standing in the living room through Valentine’s Day?

The longevity of a Christmas tree is a function of its moisture content. No surprise there. But the actual science of how to extend the lifespan of a dying conifer has soaked up years of research by Gary Chastagner and his lab at Washington State University.

The key is to keep the tree’s water content from dropping below a threshold level. Yet unless you shop with a personal pressure chamber, that probably won’t be apparent in a church parking lot. Often, a desiccated tree still has dark green needles, Chastagner said.

One test is to examine the needles. Pluck a dozen and bend them between your fingers. They should snap “like a fresh carrot stick,” he said, not “feel rubbery like a celery stick that has become limp on your kitchen counter.” The test works best with so-called true firs, like nobles, grands and Nordmanns. It’s harder to get a handle on short-needled firs like Frasers, balsams, and their love child, the Fralsam. And don’t bother with pines.

What the trees won’t tell you, the sales floor can reveal. A sprinkling of brown needles may be normal old growth from the tree’s inner branches — not necessarily worrisome. But green needles belong on the tree. Is there a mister or a hose to wet down the stock?

The firs can be fickle. They follow their own nature. A Douglas fir will stop sipping from the stand after a couple of weeks. And a noble fir may not shed even when it’s drier than a slug crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Here, then, is a broad synopsis of 25 years of post-harvest cut-conifer research: Most of the true firs should keep their looks nicely if you store them continuously in water. Chastagner would like to emphasize the “continuous” part. “If the water level falls below the base of the tree for a sufficient length of time, and you put water back in the stand, it’s not going to take up water,” he said.

Every day, a tree will guzzle about a quart for each inch of stem diameter. Try to find a capacious stand. (This is one place in American life where tall and slender is not the ideal: picture the volume of water that the trunk will displace.)

A freshly cut stem is useful, but don’t bother sawing at an angle. It’s the outer rings of sapwood that absorb the most fluid, and you want them completely submerged.

If it’s going to take four hours of domestic combat to settle on a tree topper (Virgin Mary or Yoda?), stow the tree in a bucket of water. And may the force be with you.

— Michael Tortorello

Tips: shopping for a fir

Would you pluck an oyster from the bay, park it on platter of ice, and then wait a month to slurp it down? So what makes you think you can keep a Christmas tree standing in the living room through Valentine’s Day?

The longevity of a Christmas tree is a function of its moisture content. No surprise there. But the actual science of how to extend the life span of a dying conifer has soaked up years of research by Gary Chastagner and his lab at Washington State University.

The key is to keep the tree’s water content from dropping below a threshold level. Yet unless you shop with a personal pressure chamber, that probably won’t be apparent in a church parking lot. Often, a desiccated tree still has dark green needles, Chastagner said.

One test is to examine the needles. Pluck a dozen and bend them between your fingers. They should snap “like a fresh carrot stick,” he said, not “feel rubbery like a celery stick that has become limp on your kitchen counter.” The test works best with so-called true firs, like nobles, grands and Nordmanns. It’s harder to get a handle on short-needled firs like Frasers, balsams, and their love child, the Fralsam. And don’t bother with pines.

What the trees won’t tell you, the sales floor can reveal. A sprinkling of brown needles may be normal old growth from the tree’s inner branches — not necessarily worrisome. But green needles belong on the tree. Is there a mister or a hose to wet down the stock?

The firs can be fickle. They follow their own nature. A Douglas fir will stop sipping from the stand after a couple of weeks. And a noble fir may not shed even when it’s drier than a slug crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Here, then, is a broad synopsis of 25 years of post-harvest cut-conifer research: Most of the true firs should keep their looks nicely if you store them continuously in water. Chastagner would like to emphasize the “continuous” part. “If the water level falls below the base of the tree for a sufficient length of time, and you put water back in the stand, it’s not going to take up water,” he said.

Every day, a tree will guzzle about a quart for each inch of stem diameter. Try to find a capacious stand. (This is one place in American life where tall and slender is not the ideal: picture the volume of water that the trunk will displace.)

A freshly cut stem is useful, but don’t bother sawing at an angle. It’s the outer rings of sapwood that absorb the most fluid, and you want them completely submerged.

If it’s going to take four hours of domestic combat to settle on a tree topper (Virgin Mary or Yoda?), stow the tree in a bucket of water. And may the force be with you.

— Michael Tortorello

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