HILLSBORO - Is needle drop chasing some holiday consumers away from the purchase of real Christmas trees and into the artificial tree market? Oregon Christmas tree growers think so, and they're working to produce trees that have longer needle-life.
While set up inside homes, most Christmas trees will drop some of their needles, which stick in the carpet, hide in every corner and crevice of the living room floor and generally defy homeowner efforts to clean them all up when the holiday season is over.
A national consumer focus group study conducted by the Christmas tree industry revealed needle drop as a major concern affecting consumer decisions to purchase a real Christmas tree, according to Chal Landgren, Oregon State University Extension forester in Washington County.
The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Growers Association - in cooperation with OSU Extension foresters and a Washington State University plant pathologist - are working to improve the needle-holding capacity of Christmas trees through a tree breeding and needle-drop testing project.
Starting in the late 1990s, the OSU Extension Service established Christmas tree trial plantings in Oregon and Washington using seed gathered from Douglas-fir trees grown in British Columbia that were reported to have good overall quality.
"The project has focused primarily on Douglas-Fir because this tree variety accounts for over half of the annual Christmas tree harvest in Oregon," said Landgren. "The other types of Christmas trees grown here, including Noble fir, Grand fir and Nordman fir, generally have better needle holding capacity than Douglas-fir.
"From year to year, we've eliminated poor performing trees and increased plantings of the best trees with the goal of establishing a few 'families' of superior trees in terms of growth rate, color and overall quality," Landgren explained. "Groups of 10 trees each from these top families of trees were then evaluated for needle drop over a 34-day period."
Gary Chastagner, a Washington State University plant pathologist, conducts the needle drop testing. Five trees from each group are set up in a water basin tree stand and five are set up on a dry stand, said Landgren. Then needle drop from the trees is measured at one-week intervals.
Informed by the needle drop test results, Landgren and his colleagues continue to increase the tree families that express the best overall quality and needle holding capacity, and introduce these improved characteristics into seed orchards via grafting techniques.
"We've made good progress so far, but it takes about five years from the start of a project like this to see results in the marketplace," said Landgren. "The industry's goal is to develop a Christmas tree that drops very few needles and remains in basically fresh condition over a 30-day period in the home, when watered regularly.
"The first seed to come out of the improved needle life project for Douglas-fir should be available within a few years," Landgren said.