Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree, Your Branches Green Delight Us! 

Wouldn’t it be great if a Christmas evergreen actually remained ever green? But what can you do when a tree starts losing its needles? A Canadian professor of agriculture has found some innovative solutions.

Text Felix Enzian  Illustration James Graham

Professor Lada, how would you describe the perfect Christmas tree?

It’s tall, lush and symmetrical. The color is deep green, the scent fresh and spicy. And most important of all, it doesn’t lose any needles — or only just a few. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually the case. Many recently cut Christmas trees lose their needles after just a few days or weeks. Still, at the Christmas Tree Research Center, we’ve managed by now to significantly slow down the Christmas tree aging process.

Which tree variety are we talking about exactly?

The Balsam fir. This is the most popular variety of Christmas tree in North America. They not only look gorgeous, but they also smell great. Other varieties — or instance the Fraser fir — lack this scent. The European Nordmann fir also suffers needle loss, by the way; that’s on my list for future research.

Why do firs lose their needles so quickly?

It’s caused by a particular plant hormone, ethylene, which stimulates the tree’s aging and death. There are a variety of factors that influence when this biological process starts. Along with a tree’s genetic predisposition, environmental influences and physical processes during storage and transport also play a role. These processes include watering, nutrients and climatic conditions.

How can premature needle loss be prevented?

We’ve developed three methods. For the first process, we breed firs that are especially resistant to needle loss, genetically speaking. We call the second product NADA, which stands for Needle Abscission Delay Agent. This is a natural, biochemical mixture that positively influences the fir’s hormonal balance. It’s dissolved in the water that keeps the trees fresh. The third technique is Integrated Control Environmental technology, or ICE for short. It’s used for the careful transport and storing of the trees.

How long can needle loss be delayed with these methods?

If all three processes are used together, up to eighty days, which is almost three months. This would allow North Americans to put up their Christmas tree on October 7, the Canadian Thanksgiving, and still enjoy a fresh tree until New Year’s.

Is this still a long way off  or are these techniques already being used?

All of the processes will soon be available as commercially licensed products in agriculture and in the Christmas tree trade.

What actually led you to make Christmas trees your main field of research?

Eastern Canada is my home. The cultivation, sale and export of Christmas trees is an important industry here, with annual revenues of about $100 million US dollars. A number of years ago, a farmer came to me and asked for help. He showed me a photo of his fir trees—they were almost needleless and the retailer had complained about the delivery. I found out that a lot of Christmas tree producers were struggling with this problem.

So it’s a huge market?

Right now retailers reject around 30 percent of Christmas trees due to early needle drop. If these trees weren’t returned, that would mean 30 percent more income for growers. In addition, they could also enter new markets that are further away if the trees remained fresh longer in transport. Canada is already delivering Christmas trees to Dubai. The demand for natural Christmas trees is increasing.

What can we as consumers do to enjoy Christmas trees even longer at home?

Keep the tree outside in the cold for a while before putting it up in your living room. Change the water completely instead of just filling up the bowl. For the Christmas lights, use LEDs with white light. These LEDs should also be kept on for as long as possible at night. Even without roots in the ground, these firs are living organisms. Light keeps them alive for longer.

Rajasekaran R. Lada is a professor of agriculture and the founding director of the Christmas Tree Research Center at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.