Growing a longer‑lasting Christmas tree

Agriculture's Christmas Tree Research Centre

- November 21, 2012

The needles of a Balsam Fir, up close. (From jon.hayes, via Flickr - used under Creative Commons license)
The needles of a Balsam Fir, up close. (From jon.hayes, via Flickr - used under Creative Commons license)

With the holiday season quickly approaching, many Nova Scotians are preparing for the annual selection of the perfect Balsam Fir tree for their home for the holidays. Many families cherish the fragrance and majesty of a natural Christmas tree, and consider it as much a part of the season as candy canes and Santa.

In Atlantic Canada, Christmas tree growing and exporting is a $100 million industry, employing 20,000 people. However, the industry is not without its challenges. One, as you might suspect, is increasing competition from artificial trees. Another related challenge: needle drop. Customers who buy trees that don’t last through the season are hardly happy customers, and a tree that drops its needles too soon can drive customers straight to the store for an artificial model.

“Solutions need to be found to increase both needle retention and the public’s interest in purchasing a real tree instead of an artificial one,” explained Raj Lada, a plant stress and eco-physiologist in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture. “If they are not, the Christmas tree industry in Atlantic Canada will surely suffer.”

Sustaining an industry, sustainably

Dr. Lada, driven by a commitment to rural sustainability, is providing support and research to help the Christmas tree industry in the region stay innovative. He has established the first national Christmas Tree Research Centre (CRC) in Truro/Bible Hill.  

Dr. Lada and his team develop products and technologies to enhance needle retention as well as produce what they call a “SMART Balsam,” which epitomizes an ideal tree: full, sturdy architecture, unique fragrance, blue-green needles and pest-free, with needle retention for up to three months or more.

“This major research initiative is studying, defining, isolating and improving the needle retention properties and overall quality of our Atlantic Canadian Balsam Fir Christmas tree and greenery business,” he says.

Researchers at the CRC study needle retention as their main focus in an effort to understand and discover the signals, mechanisms, factors and environmental conditions that trigger post-harvest needle drop. They already know the potential signal involved in post-harvest needle loss, the biophysical factors that accelerate it, as well as certain environmental and nutritional factors at play.

The team is working to develop innovative technologies to reduce needle drop and has identified clones and phenotypes that retain needles for a longer period of time.

“I am very pleased to lead researchers and those working in the industry through this process as well as to be part of the change myself,” said Dr. Lada (pictured, right).

Dr. Lada has also established the Atlantic Christmas Tree Research and Development Consortium to open communication and discussion among researchers in various universities, those working in the industry, and Atlantic provincial government departments.

This research is being conducted at Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in partnership with the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia; the Christmas Tree Association of New Brunswick; Christmas tree producers of NS, NB, PEI and NL; NS Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources; NB Department of Agriculture and Aquaculture; NL Department of Forestry and Agriculture; Infor Inc. NB; Smart Christmas Tree Research Cooperative; and University of New Brunswick, under the leadership and direction of Dr. Lada.


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