It isn’t easy to grow your Christmas tree. A grower has to take a chance that diseases, insects, deer or weather extremes won’t wreck the crop – and it’s a crop that takes eight to 10 or more years to produce. The grower also has to get sweaty and sticky in midsummer to shape the tree, since most trees don’t actually grow fat and cone-shaped on their own.
Then there are the weeks of cutting and preparing them for shipment. Or, in the case of New York State’s 850-plus Christmas tree farms, there are long days waiting in the cold for you to come for your tree.
This weekend will be one of the biggest weekends to visit the tree farms. They’re hoping you will show up, and may even offer hot cocoa, wagon rides, freshly made wreaths or other family-friendly enticements (www.pickyourownchristmastree.org).
Fraser fir trouble
America’s favorite Christmas tree is now the Fraser fir. It gained in popularity over the Balsam, Scots pine and Douglas fir, each the top seller during past decades. People love the Fraser for its soft needles, firm branches, fragrance and needle retention – and they’re just plain pretty.
If you get one this year you are lucky, since many Fraser fir growers have run into a problem: A strain of Phytophthera, a disease categorized as a water mold, has devastated many plantings of Fraser firs especially in 2013. Unlucky growers faced acres of cinnamon-colored trees – 10 or more years old – that turned color and died shortly before it was time to cut them. Don’t worry about your Fraser Christmas tree this year – if it’s green when you bought it and you care for it properly, you’ll have the usual terrific tree. It’s the dead trees in those fields we should feel sad about, and learn something about the challenges of agriculture in general.
Phytophthera is not a new disease. Many strains of it have affected many crops over the decades, but this time the weather set up the perfect conditions for the precise disease organisms to take charge. That’s how diseases all work: You have to have three elements – the disease triangle for a disease to thrive: the disease organism (the fungal spore or bacteria); the susceptible plant (in this case Fraser firs); and the right weather or climate conditions. This year a series of hurricanes and extended rainy periods left soils just wet enough for just long enough – and all those water mold organisms, that were lying in wait, took over. So far, estimated losses in Oregon and North Carolina – the top two U.S. Christmas tree producers – are hundreds of millions of dollars – and great heartbreak.
What is being done about it? There is no quick fix. No fungicide to prevent it or stop it. Agriculture scientists are recommending an IPM approach – integrated pest management – in which growers manage their drainage, plant in raised beds, prevent water runoff or contaminated equipment from carrying it, and stop shipment of potentially contaminated seedlings. Scientists are studying resistance. Many are grafting Fraser firs onto disease-resistant root stock. Or they will be growing other kinds of trees for us.
Other Christmas trees
Nonplant people sometimes call them all “pine trees” or just “Christmas trees,” but your holiday tree is probably a species of fir, pine or spruce. (Rarely, a hemlock or false cypress – Chamaecyparis – may be seen.) Nationally, firs are the top sellers – Fraser, Noble and Douglas, followed by Balsam fir and then Scots pine. Many other wonderful firs have become available: Canaan, Grand, Nordmann, Concolor (White fir) and Turkish. Especially Turkish and Nordmann are proving to be disease= resistant and grafting hosts for Frasers, although every species has its challenges. (Deer pass by every other tree en route to the Turkish fir banquet.) Many kinds of spruces have also been introduced recently, so watch for them and try one, especially if you want widely spaced branches for your ornaments.
Which tree is for you? It’s quite personal. I keep choosing a Grand fir; something about those fat, fragrant, soft trees with shiny deep-green needles just calls to me. I also marvel at the two-toned needles of Nordmann firs and their elegant branching structures. Some choose the Concolor fir for the tangerine scent when you brush or squeeze the needles. Douglas is soft and comfortable to decorate, and Fraser, well, there’s a reason it became the most popular tree in America. Whatever you choose, you won’t go wrong. Local growers have had a good year – unlike our Carolina or West Coast brethren – and the locally grown trees will give you great pleasure.
Take care of your purchase
In spite of many articles recommending sugar, ginger ale, aspirin and commercial products, the agricultural college scientists appear to be consistent: The way to keep your tree fresh is provide it with fresh water and keep it as cool as possible. When you get your tree, ask for a fresh butt-cut, or do this yourself before putting it in water. If the tree must wait outside until you are ready to decorate, stick it in a bucket. Then never let the water holder go dry. Preferably the tree should stand away from heat sources, in a room that is cool at night.
Christmas trees do not cause fires. Foolish human behavior can cause fires. Don’t let the tree dry out (No. 1 preventive step). Don’t leave it near a fireplace, or near smokers who are careless or fall asleep. Although modern lights are low energy and quite safe, don’t leave the tree lights on while you are away. Do throw away the charming 1960s hot lights that Dad used.
Holiday trees are an important agricultural crop – 175,000 acres planted with them in the United States. Tree farming is nature-friendly, providing habitat where suburban sprawl might be the alternative. Once used, trees recycle as mulch, or decompose over time. On the other hand, artificial trees (nearly all China) are often used for eight years or so and then go to landfills, where they do not decompose.
Buy locally, buy fresh Christmas trees and appreciate those Fraser firs while we can!
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.