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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"There will be absolutely no needles left on some branches," Chastagner said with a chuckle. "You don't want to be growing too many of those."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But a small percentage of branches will hang onto their needles for weeks, even when bone-dry. "Those are the trees I'm looking for."
Just about any Christmas tree will stay fresh for three weeks if it gets enough water. But people cram trees into stands that barely hold a pint — then let them run dry.
"It's one thing if the tree goes dry," Chastagner said. "It's another if the tree goes dry and all the needles fall off."
Northwest trees are shipped as far as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Hong Kong and Mexico, said Dennis Tompkins, an industry consultant from Bonney Lake. That means some trees are cut as early as October, making them more susceptible to drying and needle loss.
Chastagner hopes to eventually find genetic markers to quickly single out trees with outstanding needle retention. But in the meantime, the work is laborious. Trees must be tested over multiple years to eliminate the effects of variable weather. Once a grower identifies the winners and culls the losers, it still takes seven to eight years to grow a new crop from the improved seed source.
"Anything with genetics is a long-term project," said Heater.
Like most Northwest growers, his bread and butter is the noble fir — sometimes called the Cadillac of Christmas trees. The species is excellent at hanging onto its needles, Chastagner said. So much of his needle research is focused on promising species from other parts of the world. That includes Europe's most popular Christmas tree, the glossy-needled Nordmann fir.
A few Northwest tree farms offer Nordmanns and their close cousin, Turkish firs. Both species resist many pests and diseases, including the root rot that has become a major problem for some noble-fir plantations, Chastagner said. But both species can be prone to needle loss, hence the need for testing and improved varieties before they're more widely adopted in America.
As for the perfect Christmas tree, tastes vary so widely that there will never be agreement on whether bushy is better than sparse, or fir more fragrant than spruce, Chastagner said. But everyone wants a tree that doesn't shed.
Facts about popular Christmas trees
Pros: Good needle retention, fragrant, inexpensive
Cons: Branches can't hold heavy ornaments
Pros: Excellent needle retention, strong branches
Cons: Expensive, susceptible to root rot
Pros: Glossy foliage, strong branches, disease-resistant
Cons: Not widely available, needle retention varies
Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our contests.