CORVALLIS - Oregon State University Extension Service agents are helping Oregon Christmas tree growers stay ahead of the competition by producing genetically improved trees.
Despite weak markets in recent years and growing competition from other regions of the United States, Oregon Christmas trees are still considered the best available both in the United States and in many export markets.
This reputation for quality is no accident, according to Rick Fletcher, OSU Extension Service forestry agent in Benton County.
"Oregon Christmas tree growers have worked hard to maintain and improve the quality of their product and they have been eager to adopt new growing practices and production technology," he said.
In particular, Fletcher noted, Oregon growers have become increasingly interested in Christmas tree genetics. Over the past five years, OSU Forestry Extension agents Mike Bondi, Chal Landgren and Fletcher, with support from the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, have been aggressively pursuing the development of genetically improved Christmas tree seed stock.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, OSU specialists assisted growers with genetics, fertilizer and weed control research programs, but the research emphasis shifted to genetics in 1990, said Fletcher. The new emphasis is built on preliminary genetic selection work done by a handful of Pacific Northwest genetics researchers over the past 25 years, he added.
"We found there are many ways to apply cultural practices (fertilization and weed control techniques) that will make Christmas trees grow faster and look greener," he said. "However, producing high percentages of top quality trees with excellent storage properties must start with good genetics."
Fletcher and his co-workers are achieving these goals by selecting parent trees with the desirable characteristics from native forests. The best of these will eventually be interbred to produce new hybrid crosses of the parents.
The new varieties are increased in orchards to produce seed stock that is available to growers. Currently, four Christmas tree seed orchards are planted or soon will be.
"Genetic screening and hybridizing of parent plants to produce offspring with particular qualities is not new technology," Fletcher said. "We're simply doing what vegetable and ornamental plant breeders have been doing for years. It's no surprise that these techniques work as well for producing better Christmas trees as they have for making prettier roses and tastier corn."
Finding the right parents for new generations of Oregon Christmas trees has taken Fletcher and his associates all over the Cascades as far north as British Columbia.
"We've found good looking parents at different elevations and in various locations throughout the Pacific Northwest," Fletcher said. "Of course, we are limited to varieties of trees that will grow successfully in our western Oregon climate."
How well is it working? According to Fletcher, in some cases the performance of genetically improved Christmas trees has been dramatic.
"I visited a Christmas tree farm near here recently where a grower using genetically improved Douglas-fir reported 90 percent of the trees in a one-acre block as being of superior quality in terms of overall shape and fullness of foliage," he said. "Ordinarily, no more than 50 percent of the trees in any one-acre block would be graded that high."
Upgrading the "storability" of Oregon Christmas trees is perhaps an even more important goal than increasing tree uniformity.
"That's because a Christmas tree without any needles is basically worthless," said Fletcher. "Since Oregon growers are always trying to increase exports, it has become more and more important to produce trees that will still be fresh after shipment to the east coast, Mexico or Asia."
Needles drop off Christmas trees for a lot of reasons including insect injury, temperature sensitivity and the basic health and vigor of the tree, or lack of it, Fletcher explained. Overcoming these problems requires a complex mix of genetic characteristics that may be found in many different trees.
"We're working closely with tree keep ability expert Gary Chastagner from Washington State University to ensure that our genetic selections perform well after they are harvested," said Fletcher.