You can thank scientists for the ‘perfect’ Christmas tree

By Erin Schanen

About 25 to 30 million fresh Christmas trees are sold in the United States every year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. And there was a time when I searched through what seemed like several thousand of them in search of the perfect tree.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I apparently had more time, I would go to a local tree farm and spend hours roaming the field with a highly reluctant saw-toting partner. My goal was to find the “perfect” tree. There were always several contenders, including a couple identified within five minutes of arrival, but I knew there was a better one lurking deep in field.

With fingers on the verge of sustaining frostbite and my reluctant partner beyond the verge of Christmas crabiness, I was forced to lower my standards, declare the closest tree to be “fine” and stand back as, with superhero-like speed, the saw-wielding partner would attack the trunk of the tree before I could dare change my mind.

I would spend the next day debating which way to face the tree to hide its imperfections, cover it in a thousand lights and boxes of ornaments and sure enough, it would end up being pretty close to perfect.

I no longer go on such quests, and not just for the health of my marriage. There’s really no need because these days most Christmas trees are darn near perfect.

You can thank a bunch of lab coat-wearing scientists for that.

People can get uncomfortable when they think of plants and labs, conjuring visions of Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s nice to have romantic notions of how the perfect Christmas tree comes to be. Trees are the very symbol of nature, after all. But to get a perfect Christmas tree, much less 30 million of them, nature needs a lot of help.

Picture the perfect Christmas tree. It’s straight with full, sturdy branches ideal for hanging ornaments. It’s not too fat, because who has room for that? It holds its needles even after you’ve forgotten to water it for a week. And, of course, it absolutely smells like the north woods.

To get something close to that, scientists have been analyzing the DNA of trees with particular traits with the goal of identifying them in order to better select trees that become the parents of future, more perfect trees.

It’s the same thing plant breeders have been doing forever, but science helps perfect and speed up the process.

For growers, a perfect tree also grows quickly and resists a deadly fungus called Phytophthora that causes root rot in the perfect variety of trees — Frasier fir. Many growers start with seedlings that have been grafted onto the root stock of another rot-resistant fir species. And although grafting may sound very Frankenstein-like, it’s extremely common in ornamental and fruit trees.

  If you found yourself choosing from a whole Christmas tree lot full of near perfect trees this year, you can thank a scientist for that. And your saw-wielding partner probably will too.


Erin Schanen is an Ozaukee Master Gardener who lives and gardens in the Town of Belgium. She is the author of the blog The Impatient Gardener.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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