Mixing Holiday Traditions With Science

Putting up the Christmas tree is one of my beloved holiday traditions. For many years, I went to a tree farm a couple of weeks before Christmas. We’d cut down a tree, bring it home, and decorate it. I wasn’t mixing holiday traditions with science back then. But the science of Christmas trees is fascinating. 

image of a red Christmas bulb ornament on a green Christmas tree--is mixing holiday traditions with science a good thing?

The Traditions

The Romans decorated their temples with fir trees for the festival of Saturnalia. Christians used fir trees as a sign of everlasting life with God. Many people credit the Germans with bringing the Christmas tree into their homes. 

Records show that Martin Luther, a 16th century preacher, was one of the first to bring a Christmas tree into his house and put lights on it.

Read more about the first Christmas trees.

Oh Christmas Tree

image of a pine tree branch with a pine cone frosted with snow

When shopping for a Christmas tree, we want the right shape, the right height, and color. We want the tree to hold on to its needles as long as possible. And we want the tree to look fresh for weeks. These are the traits Christmas tree growers want to foster in their trees.

Fraser and noble firs are the most popular species for Christmas trees. Christmas trees are grown on tree farms in all 50 states and in Canada. Oregon is the number one state in the US for harvested trees. North Carolina is second and Michigan is third.

It can take 5-15 years for a fir to grow to 6-7 feet tall. Not only does it take years to grow, the grower must remove all pine cones by hand. And each tree can grow hundreds of pine cones. The grower also must be wary of root rot. 

Applying Science to Christmas Trees

Image of branches of a green fir tree--are we improving the planet when we are mixing holiday traditions with science?

Scientists are helping Christmas tree growers create a better Christmas tree. They want to improve the growth rate and durability of the trees. And they want trees that are resistant to root rot. 

Root rot is caused by the water-mold genus Phytophthora, a tree stricken with it can die in a matter of days./ And once the fungus is in the soil, it’s impossible to get rid of.

The Scientists

Bert Cregg

Cregg is a forest researcher at Michigan State University and a renowned expert on Christmas tree production. Wired reported on his work to reduce coning in Christmas Trees using growth regulators. His method works but is not yet a financially feasible technique.

John Frampton

Frampton is a professor in the department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. He is an expert on Fraser firs. Frampton is helping growers fight root rot. 

He tested 32 of the world’s 50-odd true fir species and found a Japanese tree called the Momi fir strongly resists phytophthora invasion. The Momi fir is not a Christmas tree, so Frampton helps growers make chimeric trees. He shows them how to graft seedling Fraser firs to Momi seedling roots. It works, but it’s a time-consuming process.

“We are doing DNA sequencing to understand the DNA of Christmas trees, and in the long term, this may lead in the future to genetic engineering,” Frampton said. “But there is still more knowledge and techniques we need to develop before we’re to the point that agriculture is now.” 

John Frampton as quoted on PopSci.com

Dr. Rajasekaran Lada

Dr. Lada, a professor and founding director of the Christmas Tree Research Center at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, is working with the hormone (ethylene). It is the hormone that triggers the tree to release its needles. 

He discussed two methods to slow or prevent needle release on a December 2010 episode of Science Friday In that episode; he revealed that his team discovered that trees that drink the most water after you bring them home, lose their needles the fastest. His team also discovered that the types of lights we string on the trees also affect how long the tree keeps its needles. (Hint: using white spectrum lights are best.)

Mixing Holiday Traditions with Science

image of vintage red car with Christmas tree tied to the roof--maybe we shouldn't be mixing holiday traditions with science.

Science fascinates me. But sometimes scientists take things too far. Genetic manipulation of food animals, of animals facing extinction, and of plant foods are all being attempted. 

Reactions to science also fascinates me. My reaction is mixed. I think creating better Christmas trees is good for survival of the trees. And I fear that commercial desires drive the science and worry about future consequences. Are we improving the planet when we are mixing holiday traditions with science? I don’t know? What do you think?

Does the DNA sequencing, experiments, and possible future genetic manipulation of and on Christmas trees bother you? Is it the idea of mixing holiday traditions with science that is most disturbing? Messing with nature? Or are you okay with genetic manipulation of plants we don’t eat? Should we be mixing holiday traditions with science?

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