The future of North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry may be growing on a state-run farm in the High Country.
Research is underway to genetically improve the trees to better combat climate change and other natural threats.
The state is home to a variety of Tannenbaum types, but the star on top is the Fraser fir — a vital part of northwestern North Carolina’s economy.
“We call Fraser firs the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” says Tracy Taylor, superintendent of the state-run Upper Mountain Research Station in Ashe County. “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, you don't get that from some of the other species.”
Climate change threats including rising temperatures and increasing weather extremes have become a challenge for growers. Frasers are also susceptible to root rot.
Grafting Frasers onto root stocks of more resistant varieties can help, but it’s too expensive and time-consuming for large-scale tree farms.
Research is now underway to develop the most elite Fraser seed in the world. They’ll be harvested from more than 1,100 small trees growing in a seed orchard at the Upper Mountain station.
They’re culled from the best-of-the-best Fraser firs experts could find when they first started working on a project to improve the state’s stock more than 20 years ago.
“Using genetically selected or genetically improved, whatever word you want to use, it pays some major dividends for growers. The trees that are selected for form, for growth rate, for needle retention — those trees just tend to be a lot more valuable,” says Taylor.
Taylor says tree research is a slow business. It will likely take a decade or more for the results of the project to get the seeds into the hands of the roughly 1,300 Christmas tree growers in the state.