$1.3M research grant will help WSU, partners address Christmas tree problems

PULLMAN, Wash. – Newly funded research at Washington State University will address issues hampering the Christmas tree industry – and possibly expand the market for live trees. Among the biggest problems for growers is Phytophthora root rot, a fungus disease that can shrink plantation yields up to 75 percent. An issue critical to consumers of live Christmas trees is the mess in their homes from fallen needles.

Collaboration across universities

Researchers at WSU and other universities hope to battle both of these problems with the support of a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“The Christmas tree industry has some big challenges,” said WSU researcher Gary Chastagner. “We hope that this national project will bring together scientific expertise and techniques to address these two issues.” Focusing on true firs, the researchers will leverage the genomics groups at North Carolina State University and the University of California, Davis to find genetic markers for Phytophthora resistance and needle retention.

“Phytophthora root rot plagues all regions where firs are grown as Christmas trees,” said John Frampton, a geneticist at NCSU and a collaborator on the project. There is no effective control for Phytophthora, so the best way to tackle the problem is to find resistant tree species.

Selecting for health

Chastagner’s graduate student, Katie McKeever, is collecting isolates of Phytophthora in various growing areas. By sequencing these samples and conducting pathogenicity trials, McKeever will contribute critical information to the team’s search for mechanisms of resistance in trees. Once the researchers find the relevant genetic markers, they can screen adult trees and select the most promising as seed sources for viable Christmas tree plantations.

The team will use similar techniques to resolve the matter of needle shedding. Chastagner’s multi-decade cataloging of Christmas trees with varying degrees of postharvest needle retention will give this part of the project a jump-start. By using these and other trees, scientists will be able to quickly identify needle-retentive gene sources so growers can produce desirable Christmas trees.

Translating research to the market

But even if growers have trees that don’t suffer root rot or needle loss, how can they be sure consumers will flock to buy their new and improved products? After all, the number of live Christmas trees sold in the United States has remained relatively static for decades. Any increase in the Christmas tree market is absorbed by the number of artificial trees sold each year.

To address the stalled market growth for live Christmas trees, Jeff Joireman, WSU associate professor of marketing, will research specific consumer preferences with a nationally representative survey followed by focus groups. Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association expects the data to expand the types of trees offered at commercial lots and U-cut farms across the country.

Increasing variety

“Some people want an old-fashioned tree like grandma had,” he said, referring to a live tree with a more open structure, in contrast to the closely-sheared, densely branched trees crafted by today’s Christmas tree industry. Dungey also noted the availability of live tree rentals in some areas, as well as narrow “condo” or “loft” trees in New York City favored by those with insufficient space for the traditionally broad Christmas tree.

“Consumers want more types and styles of trees,” he said. “The marketing part of this project will examine the Christmas tree industry from the end user’s perspective and allow the industry to respond to those desires.”

Other participants on the grant include Ross Whetten, NCSU forestry and environmental resources; David Neale, UC Davis plant science; Rick Bates, Penn State University horticulture; and Bert Cregg, Michigan State University departments of horticulture and forestry. The National Christmas Tree Association is collaborating on the project.

Learn more about WSU research on Christmas trees and other ornamental plants here.