Root rot threatens traditional Christmas fir trees

Tree geneticist John Frampton (left) and student Will Kohlway inspect fir seedlings infected with root rot at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Researchers are looking to make the firs more resistant to the disease.

BAKERSVILLE, N.C. — Jeff Pollard trudged up the steep slope and stopped at a desiccated, rust-brown tree. Two months earlier, workers had tagged this Fraser fir as ready for market.


It was going to be someone’s Christmas tree. And now it was dead.

“Never get paid back for this tree,” he said with a shrug. “Eleven years of work – gone.”

The culprit: Phytophthora root rot, a water mold that, once in the soil, makes it unfit for production.

Pollard has been growing Fraser fir in these western North Carolina mountains for nearly 40 years. To him, it’s “the ultimate tree.”

But this persistent problem has him looking to a species from the birthplace of old Saint Nicholas himself for a possible alternative. And he’s not alone.

Growers in Oregon, the nation’s No. 1 Christmas tree producer, have been experimenting with the Turkish fir for more than 30 years. That species and the Nordmann fir, also native to Eurasia, have shown promising resistance to root rot.

“Phytophthora is a problem in most areas where true firs are grown,” said Gary A. Chastagner, a plant pathologist at Washington State University. “It’s a national problem.”

Oregon leads the nation in Christmas tree production, with nearly 7 million harvested in 2007, the latest figures available from the National Christmas Tree Association. North Carolina was a distant second, with about 3.1 million trees cut.

One study estimated the losses to Oregon’s nursery and Christmas tree industries of up to $304 million a year if Phytophthora is not contained.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 producer, it costs farmers up to $6 million a year, said John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University.

To date, no fungicide has proven effective to control Phytophthora on Christmas tree plantations. So once it’s in the soil, that’s it.

Katie McKeever, a Ph.D. candidate in Chastagner’s lab, is working under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create a nationwide collection of Phytophthoras from Christmas trees to understand regional variation in pathogen populations. The goal is to challenge various firs with different Phytophthoras to determine mechanisms of resistance and ultimately develop genetic markers that can be used to identify trees that are resistant to the disease, Chastagner said.

But until native trees can be modified to have greater resistance, Pollard and others are looking to other species. He sold his first Turkish fir trees last year.

Of course, the Turkish fir is far from bulletproof. It tends to bud out earlier than Fraser fir, making it vulnerable to late-season frosts. And deer find it irresistible.

“They’ll walk by Fraser fir to snack on the Turkish fir,” Frampton said.

After the success of his first sales, Pollard ordered enough Turkish fir seedlings from Oregon for a full rotation. He expects to plant them this spring.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Pollard stood on a hillside as seasonal workers cut, baled and stacked trees – some of which he’s waited 17 years to harvest. Looking down, his hands were stained with fragrant sap.

“That sap, it kind of runs in your blood,” he said. “These Fraser fir are to the mountain people what the buffalo was to the Plains Indian. … These Christmas trees have kept family farms in families. And we’re very thankful for them.”

Pollard’s two sons, David and Jeff, have joined him in the business. At 61, he knows he has to prepare for the future.

“When we plant something, we’re not thinking about one president away or two presidents. Sometimes it’s three and four presidents down the road,” he said. “I’m banking on this tree to keep me in the Christmas tree farming business.”