Coming soon: a Christmas tree that won't shed its needles
Not everyone agrees on what makes a perfect Christmas tree, but one that doesn't shed its needles would be high on most lists.
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The scientist some call "Mr. Christmas Tree" has already conquered conifer diseases, developed guidelines to keep cut trees fresh, and helped introduce new species to the American market.
Now Chastagner is using old-fashioned genetics to create a super-race of conifers immune to consumers' No. 1 complaint about Christmas trees: needles that scatter like dandruff.
If the Washington State University professor succeeds, it will be a boon for housekeepers and a breakthrough for an industry disheartened by the popularity of fake trees.
"If we get the needle thing solved, that will be a huge development in our lifetime," said Oregon tree farmer Jim Heater, past president of the National Christmas Tree Association and one of Chastagner's biggest fans.
Heater was the first grower to put Chastagner's approach into action, testing trees used as breeding stock. The tests allowed Heater to weed out trees that drop needles easily, and preserve those that hold tight to their foliage through bad weather and bad treatment. Seed from the needle champs is giving rise to a tough new generation of fir trees that will hit the market in a few years.
The work is rooted at WSU's Puyallup Research and Extension Center, where Chastagner grows 15 acres of conifers from around the world. In roomy labs, he can experiment on hundreds of whole trees and thousands of branches. It's not high-tech compared to particle physics or biomedicine, but the Christmas tree industry doesn't pull in big research bucks.
About 40 percent of American Christmas trees come from Oregon and Washington, but the nationwide harvest can't touch the value of crops like corn or soy beans. "We're kind of small potatoes," Heater said. "A lot of what has been done to keep the industry on the leading edge, Gary has done single-handedly."
It's not an exaggeration to call Chastagner the industry's scientific Santa Claus, Heater said.
The comparison seems apt as Chastagner examines cut branches for needle loss in one of his labs. A snowy fringe circles his head. His face is round and his laugh jolly. If he gained a few pounds and strapped on a fake beard, he could pass as shopping-mall Santa.
Chastagner's passion for Christmas trees was sparked in 1980, when panicked growers got the Washington state Legislature to earmark funds to study a blight called Swiss needle cast. Chastagner got the assignment, drawing on his training in plant pathology to devise a regimen of fungicide treatment.
"He cured the problem and saved the Douglas fir industry," Heater said.
Nearly 30 years later, Chastagner never seems to tire of talking about trees. He rattles off the attributes of firs, spruces and pines like a jazz fan enthusing over famous sidemen.
In the lab, Chastagner picks a cut branch from a wire tray and fans its short, broad needles. The undersides are frosted with white. "Korean fir," he says admiringly. In the next tray are boughs of blue-gray corkbark fir, which he gathers up in hands that look more like a farmer's than a scientist's.
The branches were collected from a local grower dabbling in exotic trees. Chastagner will let them dry for several days to weeks, then rank them according to the "Denmark Needle Retention Scale," which he developed in collaboration with Danish researchers.