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The Truth Behind the Perfect Christmas Tree

St. Paul, Minn. (December 6, 1999)—We all remember Charlie Brown's sad and sickly Christmas tree, with its sagging branches and limited needles. This holiday classic warms our hearts now as it did then, but let's face facts. We do not want the "ugliest" tree to be part of our holiday tradition. We want a large, dense tree to display our treasured ornaments. We demand a high quality tree that will stay green, with needles intact, throughout the holiday season.

This is why plant pathologists work year-round to ensure the availability of high quality Christmas trees. According to Gary A. Chastagner, plant pathologist, Washington State University, and American Phytopathological Society (APS) member, "Most people take their healthy trees for granted. They find a local vendor and buy the tree they want. Very few consumers know where their trees come from, and even fewer realize the challenges growers face to meet the demand each year."

Americans purchase about 33 million fresh cut Christmas trees a year, 60% of which are grown in North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest region. More than 95% of all trees harvested come from plantations. The most popular varieties include Douglas-fir, Fraser, noble, and balsam firs, as well as Scots, Virginia and white pines.

The "healthiest" of these selections are the noble and Fraser firs. "Noble and Fraser fir varieties are arguably the highest quality trees available today," says D. Michael Benson, plant pathologist, North Carolina State University and APS member. "When displayed in water, consumers can expect to maintain a high level of moisture and limited needle loss for at least six weeks."

Because of their desirable attributes, demand is growing for the noble and Fraser firs. And, while many growers are successful in meeting the current demand, disease is a definite threat to production. In western North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest, Phytophthora root rot limits the increased production of these varieties. Noble and Fraser fir are commonly attacked by this disease when growers try to expand production to lower elevation sites with heavier textured, poorly drained soils. Losses can reach 30 to 75%. The devastation is compounded because once infected, the area can no longer be used to grow noble or Fraser firs.

In the Pacific Northwest, noble firs can be damaged by Current Season Needle Necrosis, which causes discoloration of needles. Also affecting the Noble fir in this region is Interior Needle Blight Syndrome. Once a tree is infected, it is usually unmarketable.

"To keep up with future demand, growers are putting emphasis on using healthy transplants and taking special care in choosing the ideal planting site," says Chastagner. "Plant pathologists are also looking at different tree varieties that may be less susceptible to disease, such as Nordmann, Turkish or Momi firs, to see if they have the same marketable characteristics as the noble and Fraser firs." In addition, plant pathologists continue to do extensive research to learn more about these diseases so the "perfect tree" may continue to be part of our Christmas tradition each and every year.

For more information about Christmas trees, and the diseases that affect production, visit the APSnet feature story, with photographs and links to additional sites. The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant disease with 5,000 members worldwide.