Creating a Better Christmas Tree

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Christmas trees of the future will last much longer. Photo: thekatynews.com

Around the world, Christmas trees (usually some species of conifer) are grown by simply sowing seeds harvested from wild or cultivated trees. That means that each tree is genetically different … and the results in your home can be different too. You might get a great specimen that lasts weeks and weeks, or yours may start to fall apart only a few days after you bring it indoors.

But scientists in Canada have developed a more trustworthy, longer-lasting Christmas tree. A selection of balsam fir (Abies balsamina), they’re calling it the SMART Christmas tree … and it’s beginning to change how Christmas trees are grown around the world.

Bad Shipment Leads to Research

Dr. Raj Lada examining a balsam fir. Photo: CBC

Dr. Raj Lada, a plant, tree and ecophysiology professor in the Plant, Food and Environmental Sciences Department of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, first started looking into the problem nearly 15 years ago. 

A Christmas tree grower came to see him because of a disastrous business deal. He was not paid for an entire shipment, because the trees suffered needle loss during transit and were unsaleable when they arrived. It turns out that needle loss is a long-standing problem in the Christmas tree industry.

Lada began looking into what could be done to prevent such situations in the future, including improving shipping processes, looking into products that could be sprayed onto needles to help them stay on longer and ameliorating other factors affecting trees during transport, but his interest soon also turned to the trees themselves. 

Balsam fir seedlings. Photo: Jane Blackburn/ Christmas Tree Research Counci

He discovered that some balsam firs start losing needles only 2 to 6 days after harvesting, while others had inherited “needle abscission resistance”, a genetic trait: they held on to their needles for up to three months. After testing 400 balsam firs, he chose the best, not only with resistance to needle loss, but with an attractive dense shape and a wonderful aroma (the popularity of balsam firs as Christmas trees stems largely from their reputation for an excellent Christmas tree scent, yet that too was variable from tree to tree). 

SMART Christmas tree: superior in every way to regular Christmas trees. Photo: The Chronicle Herald

Then these superior trees were selectively bred together, giving today’s SMART Christmas tree (SMART stands for Senescence Modulated Abscission Regulated Technologies). They’re aren’t clones and they certainly aren’t GMOs, but they are top quality trees, architecturally sound, fragrant trees that retain their blue-green needles up to three months after harvesting; 72 days in the home.

Also, Lada’s research into shipping and storage has led to technologies that will ensure perfect Christmas trees can be shipped all over Canada and the United States, eventually even all over the world. 

With the help of government programs and a group of growers, the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, he launched the Christmas Tree Research Centre in Truro, Nova Scotia and remains its director. Already, thousands of SMART trees are growing on tree farms throughout Atlantic Canada and should reach home markets in about 4 to 5 years.

Will there be a SMART Christmas tree in your future? I bet there will! 

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