For more than two decades, NC State researchers have studied the use of genetics to grow what they call “elite” Christmas trees. They are now about to harvest the first batch of seeds that growers can plant in their own fields.
In partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the North Carolina State Christmas Tree Genetics Program plans to build a 3,200 square foot seed processing facility in Upper Mountain Research Station in Ashe County. It will be funded by a grant of nearly $385,000 from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund.
The facility will process seeds from genetically enhanced Fraser fir trees originally planted at the Upper Mountain Research Station in 2018. The seeds represent the genetics of a select group of trees identified by the Christmas Tree Genetics Program for their superior appearance, growth rate and needle retention. .
“We are excited about this opportunity to provide North Carolina growers with elite Fraser fir genetics directly and look forward to many years of productive collaboration with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture,” said Justin Whitehill, assistant professor of forestry and environmental resources and the principal investigator of the Christmas Tree Genetics Program.
The Fraser fir is native to the Appalachians of North Carolina and accounts for over 98% of all Christmas tree species grown and sold in North Carolina. The species is very popular among holiday shoppers due to its soft needles, woody aroma, excellent needle retention, symmetrical pyramid shape, and sturdy branches.
Whitehill’s predecessor, John Frampton, who created the Christmas tree genetics program in 1996, evaluated some 30,000 Fraser firs from western North Carolina and tested them in an effort to identify those that had the best genetic characteristics. Frampton eventually narrowed it down to 25 varieties.
Prior to his retirement in 2019, Frampton and other program researchers repeatedly cloned these select trees and planted them in a six-acre orchard at the Upper Mountain Research Station. The orchard contains over 1,000 Fraser firs. Once the trees have reached maturity, Whitehill and others will begin collecting their cones.
Fraser firs use cones to spread their seeds, according to Whitehill. As the cones dry, they explode and the seeds are released. A single cone can contain up to 100 seeds. Fraser firs generally take 15 years to produce cones. Trees at the Upper Mountain Research Station began producing cones this year.
Whitehill said the Fraser firs at the Upper Mountain Research Station will likely produce enough cones for a commercial harvest between 2026 and 2028 – the expected time frame for the new seed processing facility to be completed.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture will process the cones and extract the seeds, clean them, and make them available to North Carolina growers for planting. The agency also plans to submit the seeds for certification through the United States Department of Agriculture, which would make them the first and only certified Christmas tree seed in the country.
“Our goal is to make Upper Mountain Research Station the epicenter of Christmas tree science for the United States, if not the world. We want to make sure North Carolina thrives as the one of the nation’s leading Christmas tree growers,” said Whitehill.
North Carolina currently has 38,893 acres devoted to Christmas tree production, making it the second largest producer in the United States. State producers employ more than 7,000 workers and generate about $300 million annually. With genetically improved Fraser firs, growers could generate a better return on investment.
The average wholesale price for a genetically improved Fraser fir is $76.50 compared to $45 for a regular fir. Growers typically plant 1,600 trees per acre, meaning those who buy and plant Fraser fir trees at the Upper Mountain Research Station could earn up to $47,250 more per acre than their competitors by planting genetics. not improved.
In addition to making these elite genetics available to North Carolina growers, Whitehill and his colleagues plan to use the new facility at the Upper Mountain Research Station for further research, particularly testing for progeny to better understand how second-generation offspring compare in quality. and performance of the original seed lot.
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