Fungus becomes Scrooge or Fraser firs; Researchers from Georgia will create a resilient Christmas tree

By | December 19, 2023

Christmas tree prices continue to rise.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, American customers paid an average of about $80 for a real tree last year. That was up from $70 in 2021 and $66 five years ago.

But there is more to the trend than just headline inflation.

Climate change, among other things, contributes to the rising costs of freshly cut trees.

Extreme rainfall and periods of drought, coupled with overall global warming, have created ideal conditions for the root fungus Phytophthora, which attacks most types of trees sold for Christmas displays in Georgia.

“Once the disease gets into the soil, it stays there forever,” explains Mark Andrew Czarnota, an associate professor and extension specialist at the University of Georgia, whose areas of interest include the study of Christmas trees. “The tree will die, lose limbs and become unsellable as a Christmas tree.”

Sensitive tree species will never grow in soil overtaken by Phytophthora.

The fungus has especially become the scourge – if not the Scrooge – of Fraser firs, the most popular Christmas tree in the US.

That’s important in Georgia because more than half of the live Christmas trees sold here come from out of state, and most of those are Fraser firs grown in North Carolina, which provides the unique habitat needed for their survival.

Native Frasers, which can grow up to 80 feet tall, are found exclusively near the highest mountain peaks in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

The full, sculpted Fraser specimens we sort from pop-up lots in Georgia are in stark contrast to most of their typical, more native siblings, whose natural range is at elevations at and above 1,500 feet.

Frasers are grown commercially at lower mountain altitudes on farms around 900 meters above sea level. But successfully growing these crops outside their natural habitat requires constant care.

The highest natural habitat for Fraser firs is Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, with an elevation of 6,684 feet and the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

Researchers at the NC Department of Agriculture’s 454-acre Upper Mountain Research Center have used science for decades to create the perfect Christmas tree — or at least one that comes close.

The work involved genetically modifying trees to improve needle retention, scent and other characteristics important to consumers. The culmination of these efforts is combining the most desirable characteristics of two species to create a single, superior tree.

Through a process of grafting and cross-pollination, researchers at the center are developing Fraser firs with the root systems of other species that are better adapted to extreme weather conditions and more resistant to diseases, including Phytophthora.

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Mark Czarnota, University of Georgia associate professor and extension specialist, walks through a small stand of Momi spruce trees on Thursday, December 14, 2023, at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia.  Czarnota germinated the seed and planted it 15-20 years ago.Mark Czarnota, University of Georgia associate professor and extension specialist, walks through a small stand of Momi spruce trees on Thursday, December 14, 2023, at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia.  Czarnota germinated the seed and planted it 15-20 years ago.

Mark Czarnota, University of Georgia associate professor and extension specialist, walks through a small stand of Momi spruce trees on Thursday, December 14, 2023, at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia. Czarnota germinated the seed and planted it 15-20 years ago.

Search for ‘endless supply’ of resilient Christmas trees

One of those resilient species, the Momi fir, could become a staple crop for Georgia farmers, according to UGA’s Czarnota.

The tree is completely resistant to late blight, and its tolerance for heat may allow it to thrive as far as the Florida border, he added as he walked among hundreds of trees in a field near UGA’s Griffin campus.

However, momi seeds are difficult to find and difficult to germinate.

That’s why Czarnota and colleagues, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, set out to “rescue” embryos from Georgia Momi spruce trees that “could be grown to produce hundreds of thousands of seedlings in less than six months.” if (a) reproductive system could be developed. ,” he said.

In fact, Momis could be crossed with other Georgia-friendly strains to combine their best qualities.

“It could provide an endless supply of late blight-resistant hybrid spruce for the Christmas tree, ornamental and forestry industries in Georgia and the Southeast,” Czarnota said. “This could provide fantastic financial opportunities for all these sectors.”

To do that, Momi fir pollen released in the spring would be placed on female cones of trees that are covered to prevent pollination by other species.

“Hybrid cone embryos would then be harvested and cultured to produce embryos and ultimately seedlings,” Czarnota explained.

Czarnota is seeking a grant to fund the efforts.

“With any luck, these hybrids will be late blight resistant and change our ability to grow spruce trees forever,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people growing these trees for sale so that people can buy them.”

The Georgia Christmas Tree Association lists 50 Christmas tree farms currently in the state.

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in coastal Georgia. He can be reached at jdeem@gannett.com.

Mark Czarnota touches one of the saplings growing in a greenhouse at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia on Thursday, December 14, 2023.Mark Czarnota touches one of the saplings growing in a greenhouse at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia on Thursday, December 14, 2023.

Mark Czarnota touches one of the saplings growing in a greenhouse at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia on Thursday, December 14, 2023.

Mark Czarnota shows the different needles growing on a tree in which he has grafted a Fraser fir onto the roots of a Momi fir.Mark Czarnota shows the different needles growing on a tree in which he has grafted a Fraser fir onto the roots of a Momi fir.

Mark Czarnota shows the different needles growing on a tree in which he has grafted a Fraser fir onto the roots of a Momi fir.

Small cones grow on a branch of a grafted Fraser fir and Momi fir at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia.  A heavy frost in early 2023 prevented the cones from producing.Small cones growing on a branch of a grafted Fraser fir and Momi fir at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia.  A heavy frost in early 2023 prevented the cones from producing.

Small cones grow on a branch of a grafted Fraser fir and Momi fir at the University of Georgia, Griffin Campus in Griffin, Georgia. A heavy frost in early 2023 prevented the cones from producing.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia researchers want to create a climate-resilient Christmas tree

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