NORTH CAROLINA (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Believe it or not, we less than 100 days away from Christmas! But for some, the season is year-round.
40,000 acres of land is used for Christmas tree production in North Carolina. But, climate change is putting the nearly $250 million state staple at risk.
In response, there are some elves that work their magic, not on toys, but on an essential part of every family’s Christmas season. It’s not quite Santa’s workshop, but NC State’s Christmas Tree Genetics Lab.
“This isn’t a Christmas tree, this is meant to be a research tree” Dr. Justin Whitehill leads Santa’s science workshop. “It’s a little Charlie Brown-ish” he laughs Dr. Whitehill is a forestry health expert with a specialty in Christmas tree genetics.
North Carolina ranks second in Christmas greens, supplying more than 20% of the nation’s trees.
“…A Frasier fir, it has very soft, nice needles, a very nice aroma,” he explains. And uniquely, it’s the only place in the U.S. that can grow the species.
“What makes Frasier fir so nice is that the needles are very soft, the branches are strong so it’s great for holding onto ornaments,” remarks Dr. Whitehill.
It’s been chosen to be decked in the White House halls more times than any other tree, known best for its piney aroma and needle retention. “That’s one of the major concerns for consumers, of course, they don’t want to have a tree in their living room and all the needles fall off a few weeks after harvest,” he explains.
But as North Carolina loses its winter chill, our gold standard tree is at risk. Dr. Whitehill explains, “we’re stable with our industry, but we’re trying to get out in front of any potential problems that may come out in the future.”
So his team of scientists is looking for the best genes to grow faster, bigger, and more resilient trees. He adds, that they are trying to “improve the ability of those trees to withstand climate stress, climate change, as well as challenges from insects and fungal pathogens.”
Both insects and fungal pathogens thrive in warmer and wetter winters, a symptom of climate change, “as temperature rises, they grow faster, so they get more expansion of their populations, which then builds up and puts more pressure on the trees,” explains Dr. Whitehill.
Pressure on the trees comes with stress on the growers, microscopic killers cause roots to rot underground. Adarsha Devihalli is a Ph.D. student in the Christmas Tree Genetics Lab, studying the pathogen and the trees’ response. “It’s hard for the growers to see that there’s a presence of a pathogen, and also it’s hard to treat them.”
And even for the nutrient-stealing, hard-shelled insects that you can see, the stress is hard to prevent. Sai Karthik is also a Ph.D. student in the lab, focusing on insects and their impact on Christmas trees in North Carolina. He explains, “the insecticide cannot penetrate the hard cuticle and it doesn’t kill the insect very effectively.”
Karthik explains, “every tree has a different response when it’s stressed by insects or any other pathogen.” That’s where the genetics come in, Devihalli adds, “if I identify some characteristic or different mechanism in the Christmas tree, I try to bring it to Frasier fir and try to mass produce such Christmas trees.”
One unsuspecting defense mechanism is the very scent that reminds us the holidays are near. Will Baldwin is a Ph.D. student that studies compounds like pinene that create the strong pine scent we all know and love.
The compounds that create the familiar aromas are meant to fight off pests, Baldwin explains, “in a way they don’t taste good to the insects or animals when they’re trying to feed on the plant.” But while the deer can’t stand the bite, people have come to love the smell. He adds, “they also have a very low boiling point, so they evaporate from the trees, and that’s why you get the aroma.”
There’s a science to the smelly defense, Baldwin explains, “from the trees we can take samples, and freeze those samples, and grind them up, analyze them, and determine the compounds present.” But, the research comes with a balancing act to keep your piney Christmas nostalgia.
Petri dishes laid out in the lab are like putting the final bow on your wrapped gift. They’re full of the cloned seedlings of Christmas trees. Angela Chiang is the research assistant and lab manager tying that bow.
“If you’re lucky, all of a sudden they start producing little clusters of somatic embryo tissue.” The tissue she works with was selected from only the best traits for the most resilient tree discovered by her fellow scientists. She explains, “we have dissected some embryos out of mature seeds.”
Dr. Whitehill notes this is an important step to creating more resilient trees, “we know the offspring of that tree that’s been selected for its elite genetics are going to be producing trees that are elite like the parent tree.”
And even after all that holiday stress, these NC State scientists are hoping those elite trees put them on Santa’s nice list, and help them stay there.
“There’s ways of dealing with it but for our research program we try to get ahead of those issues and make sure the industry can keep going long into the future,” reflects Dr. Whitehill.