Root Disease Means Rotten Christmas for Fir Tree Farmers

By ABC News

Dec 3, 2013 3:18pm

With just 22 days left until Christmas, the rush is on for millions of Americans to find the perfect tree.  But  Christmas tree farmers are in a rush of their own  to save the Fraser fir Christmas tree from a mold that is threatening its survival.

The Associated Press reports Christmas tree growers in North Carolina and Oregon are experimenting with other breeds of firs– including Turkish and Nordmann — to save their industry.

The farmers are fighting back against Phytophthora root rot, a water mold that kills Fraser firs once it grabs hold, the AP reports.

“Eleven years of work — gone,” North Carolina Christmas tree grower Jeff Pollard told the AP, referring to one of his Fraser firs that died before it could be sold.

Pollard attributes the growth of root rot on his 130,000 trees-strong farms to Hurricane Fran, which struck North Carolina in 1996, and Hurricane Ivan, which hit in 2004.

Each year 30 to 35 million American families purchase a fresh, farm-grown Christmas tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.  Nearly seven million of those trees were harvested in Oregon, while more than three million were harvested in North Carolina.

“It’s more widespread now than it has been in the past,” John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University, told ABCNews.com of the Phytophthora disease. “This past summer we had an unusually large amount of rain and that’s when the Phytophthora is more active and more liable to be spread.”

Frampton says Phytophthora naturally spreads through water in the soil and can also be spread through mud on vehicles or boots and through transplanting infested materials.

“The organism that causes this disease was introduced in the 1900s we think, so it’s been with the industry ever since it started in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s,” Frampton said.

According to the NCTA, 98 percent of all real Christmas trees purchased each year are grown on farms.

The AP reports that until Phytophthora is contained, Oregon’s Christmas tree industry could lose up to $304 million per year, while North Carolina farmers could suffer a loss of $6 million per year.

To try to contain the disease, geneticists like Frampton and Christmas tree growers are grafting Frasier fir into the roots of a resistant Fir species, growing other fir species that are resistant to Phytophthora and conducting research to find the genes within Turkish fir that are resistant with the hope that they could be transferred to the Frasier fir.

“We have never been able to find genes resistant to Phytophthora in Frasier firs,” Frampton said.

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