It Was Going To Be Your Christmas Tree But Now It’s Dead: The Fir’s Fight Against Root Rot

The life of a fir means long years spent with its roots digging into the earth, boughs and limbs reaching toward the sky and the dream of becoming someone’s Christmas tree. But for many fir species, it’s often a dream deferred (pun intended), nay, destroyed by a pesky disease called root rot.

It might sound silly to mourn the death of a tree, but it’s also a disappointing result to the nation’s Christmas tree farmers, who put years and years into cultivating the trees so they can one day be sold to hold court during the holidays.

As the Associated Press report on Phytophthora puts it: “It was going to be someone’s Christmas tree. And now it was dead.”

“Never get paid back for this tree,” said a North Carolina farmer of a recent case, a tree that two months before it browned and dried up was ready for sale. “Eleven years of work — gone.”

Once root rot gets into the soil, the water mold makes it impossible to grow healthy trees like the Fraser fir, which along with the Douglas and Noble is one of the most classic Christmas trees.

“Phytophthora is a problem in most areas where true firs … are grown,” said a plant pathologist and extension specialist at Washington State University. “It’s a national problem.”

So far there’s no fungicide that’s been able to solve the root rot problem on Christmas trees plantations. But with the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, there’s a lot of pressure to find a fix. Can you imagine the outrage if there’s a Christmas tree shortage?

Growers in Oregon — the biggest producer of Christmas trees — and North Carolina, among other places, are looking to different species that are resistant to the root rot. Oregon farmers have been working with the Turkish fir for more than 30 years, as it and the Nordmann Fir show they might be able to fight root rot.

As such, researchers are working on a way to inoculate firs against root rot using the gene that makes the Turkish variety resist it.

“And if we can identify the gene, maybe we can go out and … possibly we can speed up the hybridization and get something to the growers faster,” said one masters student working on it.

If you’re not sure you’d like a Turkish Fir over the traditional Douglas, Noble or Fraser, one Oregon grower says his trees have been doing well since he sold his first last year.

“We followed them all the way through, from when they put them up to when they took them down,” said of gauging customers’ reactions. “And they were happy and so now we’re sure of the tree.”

Root rot threatens traditional Christmas fir trees [Associated Press]