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Engineering the perfect Christmas tree

Don't get that fake evergreen just yet. Gene engineering and time-tested farming techniques are merging to form a better tree. Photos: Oh Christmas tree

There's no such thing as a perfect Christmas tree, but genetic engineering may help keep the needles on the branches longer.

Facing the rising popularity of increasingly realistic fake trees from China, researchers and Christmas tree growers are pouring more energy into manipulating the genetic code of evergreens to create heartier trees that take less time to mature.

In eastern North Carolina, scientists from East Carolina University and growers such as Brownie Sutherland of Beautancus Christmas Trees and Wreaths are trying to develop a type of Virginia Pine that will grow straight.

"A Virginia Pine is a vine until you tell it to be a Christmas tree," Sutherland said. The species, native to coastal plain, isn't as popular as some of the species that grow in the mountains, such as the Frasier Fir. It is also subject to insect problems and can be labor-intensive to raise.

Virginia Pines, however, can mature in five to seven years, more than twice as fast as the Frasier, leading to more rapid turnover and higher yields for farmers. The tree can also be grown in land once used for tobacco. The current crop of experimental Virginia Pines should mature in about four years.

"I'd like to see better color, or trees that hold their needles longer."
--Fletcher Spillman, East North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Association

"There is a lot of activity to find alternative crops," said Ron Newton, a professor of biology at the university who is conducting the research.

Newton has also isolated a gene inside of a tree from Israel called the Aleppo pine that provides greater tolerance to drought. In six to nine months, Newton hopes to have seedlings of native trees that have been enhanced by the Aleppo gene.

Although it's seasonal, the Christmas tree industry is fairly large. Roughly 25 to 30 million trees get sold annually, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, accounting for more than a billion dollars in revenue. Oregon is the largest producer, followed by North Carolina and Michigan. The tree industry in North Carolina pulls in roughly $100 million in revenue.

Most of the work in genetically beefing up Christmas trees involves selective breeding. An ongoing program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh is seeking to develop generations of Fraser Firs, one of the most popular Christmas tree breeds, from seeds originally culled from 200 or so trees with desirable genetic traits.

Because the trees only grow naturally at 3,000 feet above sea level, some are also looking at ways to develop a strain that can live at lower altitudes.

Some genetic variants have occurred by accident. The early '80s saw the birth of the Fralsam, a popular tree that's a hybrid between a Frasier and a Balsam fir. Not only does the tree grow 10 to 20 percent more than the parents, it holds it needles well. While the Weir Farm helped breed the tree, the hybrid got started through natural cross-pollination.

It's only recently that growers and researchers have begun to experiment with gene slicing and embryonic experiments in the lab. A gene for increasing resistance to the Tip Moth has already been added to some trees. Newton also added that growers and others are carefully monitoring how modified trees could affect the environment.

"I'd like to see better color, or trees that hold their needles longer," said Fletcher Spillman, president of the East North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Association. "We'd like to get a cross breed with a starfish so it would come out with a star on top."