Christmas tree genetically improved for less needly mess to clean up
Researchers have taken the best genetic characteristics of the Fraser fir, arguably the most popular choice for Christmas tree, and used them to create a tree that’s taller, prettier, and – importantly – sheds only a fraction of its needles.
For many, the Christmas tree stands at the center of the holiday season. Family and friends gather to cover it with tinsel and baubles or sit around it sipping eggnog and reminiscing about the year that’s passed. And it’s where the presents are left for wide-eyed kids to discover on Christmas morning.
While many prefer a real Christmas tree to a fake one, a major downside to having the real thing is its propensity for needle-shedding and the mess that creates. It’s one of the reasons why the North Carolina (NC) State Christmas Tree Genetics Program has spent more than 40 years working on a ‘super’ version of the Fraser fir tree.
The Fraser fir is arguably the most popular Christmas tree species. It’s chosen for its hardiness, which means it survives being cut and can be shipped across long distances. And while it is supposed to be less likely to drop its needles, it still does.
Mindful of the tree’s popularity but determined to enhance its characteristics, the Christmas Tree Genetics Program tested almost 30,000 Fraser firs and identified 25 with the best genetics. These top trees were propagated and planted on a six-acre seed orchard at the Upper Mountain Research Station, North Carolina, in 2018.
Some of the more than 1,000 trees in the orchard are already producing seed-bearing cones, which can contain up to 100 seeds representing the next generation of trees. Researchers are collecting the cones to study them, planning to eventually submit them to a newly constructed seed processing facility so they can distribute the seeds to growers between 2026 and 2028.
“Our trees will make the lives of both growers and consumers easier,” said Justin Whitehill, director of the Christmas Tree Genetics Program.
So, what’s different about these genetically-improved Christmas trees? Three things: they’re taller, more esthetically pleasing, and – perhaps most importantly – they lose only a tiny percentage of their needles.
Fraser firs generally need at least seven or eight years in the field to reach a commercial height of six to seven feet (1.8 to 2.1 m). With improved genetics, the trees are, on average, a foot (30 cm) taller.
“Our genetically-improved trees grew an extra 1-2 inches a year,” Whitehill said. “So instead of having to wait 7-8 years for a tree to reach the typical commercial height, growers might only have to wait 6-7 years.”
Christmas tree purchasers want a tree with a straight central stem and branches that turn upward slightly to form a symmetrical, conical shape with a narrow, pointed crown – perfect for placing an angel or star on. Many growers shear Fraser firs to slow their growth rate and ensure they develop into the perfect shape. Thankfully, when the researchers identified their top 25 trees, appearance was a selection criteria.
“Each of the trees selected for the orchard had a conical shape with dense branches, so we expect their offspring to grow that way as well,” said Whitehill. “If we can grow trees that already look like that and reduce or eliminate the need for manual labor, it’s going to save money for growers. It’s also going to make customers happy.”
Which brings us to the point (pun intended). Unlike most conifers, which lose the most amount of needles in the 40 days after harvest, Fraser firs hold on to theirs for several months. The Fraser’s ability to retain needles is almost entirely controlled by genetics. Thanks to the researchers’ genetic handiwork, the modified trees are expected to lose less than 1% to 2% of their needles.
“You might not even have to vacuum with the genetics developed by our program,” Whitehill said.
Sadly, those wanting to get their hands on these super-firs have to wait. If growers plant the genetically-modified trees by 2030, they won’t be available to customers until at least 2037. Bah humbug!
Source: NC State University