OSU extension foresters help build better Xmas trees

November 2, 2004

ST. HELENS – Contrary to what many people surprisingly still believe today, most of the world's Christmas trees don't grow wild in the forest.

The thick, green and shapely Christmas trees that will grace countless living rooms this holiday season represent many years of effort by a whole cadre of people, including Oregon State University Extension Service foresters, grower volunteers, tree nurseries and the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.

The holiday tree you cut down on the tree farm or buy on the lot is specially selected, bred and raised in well-managed fields, or plantations, much the same as other agricultural crops, only they take six to 10 years to come to harvest.

Plus, there's the 15 to 20 years of selection, breeding and rearing work required to develop good, consistent seed stock for nurseries to produce the seed for the tree farms before they are planted on the farm, explained Chal Landgren, forester with the Washington and Columbia County offices of the OSU Extension Service.

Landgren and his OSU Extension forester colleagues in northwest Oregon – Mike Bondi, Brad Withrow-Robinson and Rick Fletcher – scour Oregon's public and private timberlands, searching for trees that exhibit superior growth habits or traits. They look for upright branching, shorter needles and an abundance of buds. Other, more non-visual desirable traits they seek in trees may include late bud break to escape frost damage, resistance to diseases, and fast growth.

Once the OSU foresters have identified and tagged superior mother trees, they send cone collectors to the forest in late summer for the harvest. Often, the collectors will have to climb 60 to 80 feet to snatch the cones before the squirrels do.

Seed from these cones is then planted in a tree nursery. One to three years later, the seedlings are transplanted into commercial plantations in small blocks called progeny tests, or trials, for evaluation. It's here that seedlings are allowed to mature into full-grown Christmas trees so that Landgren and colleagues can grade them.

Some trees will grow just as the OSU Extension foresters hoped. Many won't.

Once they identify good performers, they will go back into the forest and take branch cuttings, or scion wood, from the "mother" trees. Sometimes they take cuttings from superior trees in the progeny tests, too. They then graft the branches onto young trees in seed orchards that will begin producing their own cones in as little as five years.

Seed from these cones, which undergo controlled pollinations, is then made available to nurseries that will grow seedlings for commercial growers. Because of choice parentage, nurseries that purchase the select seed should be able to command a premium for their seedlings from growers.

"Basically, we're trying to increase their number of No. 1 grade Christmas trees per acre," Landgren explained. "To do that we're looking at trying to use genetic sources that will reduce the amount of time to accomplish this.

"There's probably about a 30 percent difference in the wholesale price to growers between No. 1 trees and No. 2 trees," Landgren said. "I would think it would be conservative to say that we could increase the number of No. 1 and premium trees on an acre by 30 percent."

Upping the percentage of top quality trees in a plantation can profoundly affect the grower's bottom line, he said.

Good genetics aren't the whole story. Good growing conditions are important too. Even a pedigree seedling won't grow well on a poor site.

"The site they're planted on makes more difference than the genetics," said Landgren. "But if you get good genetics on a good site the better seedlings will do better."

What about the future? Might genetic engineering make it easier, quicker and cheaper to develop super stock for Oregon's Christmas tree growers?

Landgren says he doubts if there will ever come a time when all Christmas trees are "super" trees and exact replicas of each other. He doesn't see gene engineering entering the picture any time soon.

"We first would have to identify the genes that would be important, and I don't see efforts going into that in the near term," he said. "The chances of getting them bioengineered into the crop would be pretty slim."

When not working with the trees, Landgren and his colleagues spend a lot of time with Christmas tree growers, advising them on everything from how to fight diseases, such as current season needle necrosis that attacks noble fir trees, to lowering production costs.

Author: John Schmitz
Source: Chal Landgren