Christmas tree research in North Carolina is entering a new chapter after a groundbreaking at the Upper Mountain Research Station. The event in late November marked the official beginning of a new building on the research station that will house a seedbank for the most elite Fraser fir seeds in the world. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler joined station superintendent Tracy Taylor, researchers, cooperative extension staff, growers and funders for the milestone event. It was part of a legislative tour with a few state lawmakers learning more about the state’s Christmas tree industry and the research tied to the station in Laurel Springs.
The plan is to continue breeding the best Fraser firs with each other to refine their genetics even more so that they produce even more of their desirable characteristics. Seeds from those elite trees would be catalogued and kept in the new building on the station in Laurel Springs. A grant of $383,685 from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission provided a kickstart for construction of the building, which is being called The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Christmas Tree Seed Center of Excellence.
Superintendent Taylor spoke to WJZY-TV Queen City News about the location just a few days after the groundbreaking, saying, “Fraser firs are native to the southern Appalachian Mountains, so they are right at home in North Carolina. Our climate makes it [natural] to grow those trees here, and they are very desirable trees. You probably know the White House tree has come from Ashe County many times over the years – just because these guys up here are really good at growing really good trees.”
The Christmas tree improvement center follows decades of previous research into breeding Fraser firs with the best genetic properties. (A deeper dive into how the genetic breeding research has evolved can be found on the NCDA&CS blog at https://blog.ncagr.gov/2022/06/02/research-station-aims-to-provide-worlds-best-fraser-firs/.) With better and better trees being produced, the hope is to makes trees that are even more desirable to consumers and also more profitable for farmers and others in the Christmas tree industry.
“We call Fraser firs the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” Taylor said in another interview with WFDD-FM, the public radio station in Winston-Salem. “They have soft needles, they retain their needles longer, their branches are kind of sturdy to hang ornaments on. The aroma you get from a Fraser fir, you don’t get that from some of the other species.”
Even the particular shade of green is a desirable characteristic. For the sake of tree farms, there’s a hope that the trees could also be bred to have a number of other improvements too, such as disease resistance, heat tolerance and even a reduced growing time.
“Christmas trees are a very slow-growing crop, and if we can cut some time off of that and find trees that grow faster, if we can find trees that hold their needles better and have these characteristics that make them desirable for Christmas trees, it would increase the experience for growers as well as increasing the experience for [consumers],” Taylor explained as he mentioned a few examples of how further breeding could evolve Christmas trees.
It typically takes about seven years to grow a tree from a transplant to a standard-sized Christmas tree. If a variety of Fraser fir can be developed to grow to maturity in just six years (or even less), then tree farmers could generate income in a shorter timeline. Travis Birdsell, Ashe County’s director of N.C. State Extension, estimated the economic impact of reducing the Christmas tree growth cycle, or rotation, by just one year would potentially increase the state’s Christmas tree industry by $74 million annually.
If varieties can also be developed with the other desirable characteristics, the seedbank may also be a source for growers to get trees with a number of specific traits they desire. For example, one tree variety may excel in long range needle retention while another has adapted better to warmer weather. A third or fourth variety could have the best disease resistance or aroma. Ideally, the seedbank will provide ways for tree farmers and tree nurseries to pick from a variety of Fraser firs depending on their needs and desires.
Ultimately, the new building will play a role in helping Christmas tree farming remain a viable agricultural business even as challenges remain or evolve. As stated in the grant summary, it will be a “hub to process, store and distribute the most elite Fraser fir seed in the world. This building will also have lab and office space with the capability to fully support the Fraser Fir breeding program from NCSU.” The breeding program is the Whitehill Lab – Christmas Tree Genetics Program at N.C. State.
“[The building] is going to put the breeding program from N.C. State University right here in the heart of Christmas tree country moving forward. So it’s going to give us a big advantage to do our job faster,” Taylor said.
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