On Solid Ground – Dec. 12, 2012 – Christmas Trees, Flight Mills, 1-800-DNA

Christmas Tree Research Grant Aims to Solve Major Problems for Industry

New research will address Christmas tree issues--and possibly expand the market for live trees.
New research will address Christmas tree issues–and possibly expand the market for live trees.

One of the biggest problems for Christmas tree growers is Phytophthora root rot, a fungus disease that can shrink plantation yields up to 75 percent. A related issue (though a little less consequential) for consumers of live Christmas trees is the mess in their homes from fallen needles. Researchers at Washington State University and other universities hope to battle both of these problems with the support of a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“The Christmas tree industry has some big challenges,” said WSU Christmas tree researcher Gary Chastagner, “and we hope that this national project will bring together scientific expertise and techniques to address these two issues.” Focusing on true firs, the researchers will leverage the genomics groups at North Carolina State University and the University of California, Davis, to find genetic markers for Phytophthora resistance and needle retention.

“Phytophthora root rot plagues all regions where firs are grown as Christmas trees,” said John Frampton, Christmas tree geneticist at NCSU and a collaborator on the project. There is no effective control for Phytophthora, so the best way to tackle the problem is to find resistant tree species. Chastagner’s graduate student, Katie McKeever, is collecting isolates of Phytophthora in various growing areas. By sequencing these samples and conducting pathogenicity trials, McKeever will contribute critical information to the team’s search for mechanisms of resistance in trees. Once the researchers find the relevant genetic markers, they can screen adult trees and select the most promising as seed sources for viable Christmas tree plantations.

The team will use similar techniques to resolve the matter of needle shedding. Chastagner’s multi-decade cataloging of Christmas trees with varying degrees of postharvest needle retention will give this part of the project a jump-start. By using these and other trees, scientists will be able to quickly identify needle-retentive gene sources so that growers can produce desirable Christmas trees.

Translating the Research to the Market

But even if growers have trees that don’t suffer root rot or needle loss, how can they be sure that consumers will flock to buy their new and improved products? After all, the number of live Christmas trees sold in the United States has remained relatively static for decades. Any increase in the Christmas tree market is absorbed by the number of artificial trees sold each year.

To address the stalled market growth for live Christmas trees, Jeff Joireman, WSU associate professor of marketing, will research specific consumer preferences with a nationally-representative survey followed by focus groups. Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association expects the data to expand the types of trees offered at commercial lots and U-cut farms across the country.

“Some people want an old-fashioned tree like grandma had,” Dungey said, referring to a live tree with a more open structure, in contrast to the closely-sheared, densely branched trees crafted by today’s Christmas tree industry. Dungey also noted the availability of live tree rentals in some areas, as well as narrow “condo” or “loft” trees in New York City, favored by those with insufficient space for the traditionally broad Christmas tree. “Consumers want more types and styles of trees,” Dungey said. “The marketing part of this project will examine the Christmas tree industry from the end user’s perspective, and allow the industry to respond to those desires.”

Learn more about WSU research on Christmas trees and other ornamental plants by visiting http://bit.ly/16Bs1r.

-Bob Hoffmann

Insect Flight Mills Video Now Available

You may remember the article about entomology graduate student Teah Smith’s insect flight mills research project in the October 10 issue of On Solid Ground (at http://bit.ly/flightmills). Now you can watch a video at http://bit.ly/VvisLq featuring Smith explaining her work and how it applies to growing tree fruit.

1-800-DNA

Michael Neff, WSU associate professor of crop biotechnology, teaches the graduate-level Plant Molecular Genetics–and also writes catchy songs. Check out the short video at http://bit.ly/X13lKK in which he combines his talents in the song “1-800-DNA,” performed for his class on the last day of lectures. Enjoy!

How many varieties of wheat has WSU developed?

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Incorrect

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