Quest for the perfect Christmas tree

An old Christmas carol suggests that “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, thy leaves are so unchanging.” Apparently, that isn’t true.

The Christmas trees of the future may be different, and will soon be sprouting in greenhouses in the United States – following a scientific pilgrimage thousands of miles to the mountains of Turkey to find new tree species that may resist disease, insect attack and better tolerate various moisture conditions.

Trees like this Turkish fir may form the basis for a new Christmas tree industry in the United States.
Trees like this Turkish fir may form the basis for a new Christmas tree industry in the United States.

You won’t see many of them in neighborhood sales lots for a number of years, but researchers are optimistic that the Douglas-fir and noble fir trees so prominent today may eventually be joined – and to some extent replaced – by such future varieties as Turkish fir, Trojan fir and Nordmann fir.

“We’re trying to identify very good looking, fast growing trees that better resist some of our most serious plant disease and insect problems,” said Chal Landgren, a professor of forestry Extension and Christmas tree expert at Oregon State University. “We want the best of the best, and I think we’ll find it.”

In that quest, experts from OSU and North Carolina State University recently traveled to western Turkey, the native home of some promising varieties of fir trees that scientists have reason to believe will thrive in the U.S. and ultimately create the perfect Christmas tree – healthy, fast growing, beautiful foliage, tolerant of a wide range of moisture conditions, and able to resist plant and insect attacks that now are costly concerns for the industry.

In particular, researchers want a tree that resists phytophthora root rot, which is a moderate problem in the Pacific Northwest and a major problem in North Carolina, the state second only to Oregon in Christmas tree sales. Other concerns are annosus root rot, rust diseases, and attacking insects such as adelgids and twig aphids. Trees that resist insect attack would also allow reduced use of pesticides.

And, to some extent, the scientists think they have found these trees. But only time will tell.

Seeds of a New Industry

“The new varieties we’re looking at from Turkey have some of these disease and insect resistance capabilities, and they also seem to be able to grow in both wetter and drier sites,” Landgren said. “And these are beautiful trees, commonly mistaken for noble fir, which commands a premium price.”

As part of a research consortium funded by private industry, scientists obtained seed cones from a variety of promising-looking mature trees in Turkey, and used GPS technology to literally map the specific tree. If seedlings and young trees later confirm that seeds from a certain tree are the most desirable, they will be able to return to that tree, obtain more seeds and build a new industry from there.

Other collaborators on this project are from Michigan State University, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and the University of Copenhagen.

Right now, Landgren said, Douglas-fir and noble fir almost totally dominate the Pacific Northwest Christmas tree industry, comprising about 97 percent of the market. Even though it takes two or three years longer to grow to the appropriate height for a Christmas tree, he said, in a good year noble fir still produces the most profit per acre for growers.

“We hope to identify particular trees from Turkey that will grow as fast as noble fir, have some of the other desired characteristics, and look as good or better,” Landgren said.

Helen of the Firs

The area of Turkey these trees came from, Landgren said, look much like Oregon at alpine elevations, with healthy fir trees, rolling hills, wild rhododendrons and filbert orchards. And they have thousands of years more recorded history, such as being the area where Helen of Troy of Greek mythology was supposedly captured.

Different trees from this research initiative may find niches in various parts of the U.S. where they are best adapted, Landgren said. And at least some will probably end up growing in Oregon, which is the nation’s leading Christmas tree state with more than $100 million in sales.

Nationally, almost 25 million Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. each year.