Christmas Conifers

Creating a Better Christmas Tree

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! 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

1 comment on “Creating a Better Christmas Tree

  1. Seed for most types of Christmas trees are selected from superior trees that have been trialed. They have been in cultivation for a very long time. A few are actually cultivars.

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