Tree expert pokes at needle retention

Research underway to keep needles on Christmas trees longer

Dr. Raj Lada of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College surveys Christmas trees in the school's greenhouse in Truro. His research aims to increase needle retention for Nova Scotia's commercial growers. Photo: Corbett Hancey

One day a desperate entrepreneur showed up at Dr. Raj Lada's doorstep looking for help. He was a Christmas tree grower who had just lost his entire crop.

Just days after the trees were cut, the needles were falling off.

Lada is a plant physiologist. Simply put, he studies what goes on inside a plant, and the grower had heard of his work at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. Lada had done research into why some plants shed their leaves and flowers, but nothing related to Christmas trees. But after speaking with other Nova Scotia tree growers, it became clear that needle-shedding was a widespread problem.

"There was no research going on at this time and there wasn't much money available to get started," Lada recalls.

That was three years ago, and now Lada thinks he has found the solution. He established the Christmas Tree Research Centre at the college and found funding to back his research. In January, the centre was awarded $5 million in federal government grants to find ways to improve needle-retention in balsam fir, the most widely grown Christmas trees in Canada. He says the centre is the only one in the world.

The Christmas tree industry is worth $70 million annually to the Atlantic provinces, Lada says. More than 2.5 million trees are grown per year in the region, with almost all shipped to the U.S. to compete with growers there.

Changes in American Christmas tree culture are compounding the problem. American families now put up trees as early as thanksgiving and expect to keep them up until January. CBS News reports that even the lighting of the iconic tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City can happen as early as mid-November, as many as 40 days before Christmas.

A tree that sheds its needles in a few days won't cut it.

American producers don't face the same problem. Their preferred tree, the Fraser fir, doesn't shed its needles for at least two months. It's too cold here, though, to grow Fraser fir.

None of this deters Lada. "It's a great industry for Nova Scotia," he says. "We felt we had to do something."

His team selected tees that displayed above-average needle retention, then tried to find out what made them different from other trees. This led them to three chemical compounds that Lada believes improve needle retention and, in the best cases, they have been able to delay needle shedding for about a month to almost three. Best of all, these compounds occur naturally inside the trees.

Jamie Simpson, forestry project manager for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, would rather see trees grown organically, and most are not. Given that the only alternative to the retention problem is artificial trees that can take centuries to decompose, he supports Lada's natural solution.
Lada envisions a spray containing the compounds that would be applied to trees as they grow. It could be two years or more before it leads to a marketable product.


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