Dropped needles may head for Christmas past

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Have you got the last ones up from the carpet under the sofa? How about those two behind the rear leg of the coffee table?

If you had a real Christmas tree in your living room from shortly after Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, I think you know what I'm talking about. The annual game of finding-yet-more-conifer needles around your house is still in full swing.

You could, of course, switch your tactics next year and get an artificial tree. The young folks tell me the manmade trees even come "pre-lit," a concept I think I'll pass over without remark.

For me, the aroma and ambiance of any manufactured tree is just not quite the same as one harvested from nature. Here in the boondocks of the Northwest -- a million miles it often seems from where most Americans live -- we can still venture forth with a permit in early December to national forests. There we stomp through the snow and look at the scraggly trees growing around us. The trees are what I call "more air than tree," the opposite of the dense Christmas tree most people want.

The upside of such a tree is being able to actually see your Christmas ornaments once you get it home and set up. From every angle there's plenty of display space to admire the historical family ornament of 1982.

But forest work, with freezing-cold feet and only the reward of scraggly trees is just not everyone's cup of tea. So, thick and dense Christmas trees are grown on Christmas tree farms. The trees are produced by judicious pruning, so they have more branches per foot of height. That change in tactics, plus a switch in the tree species used as Christmas trees in the last 50 years, accounts for why our grandparents' Christmas tree was quite a different item from what we see on commercial lots in cities each December.

But there's something else that's become quite different, and that brings me back to you, vacuuming up needles under the sofa.

In our grandparents' day, people brought Christmas trees into their homes shortly before Christmas Day. Sometimes, in fact, the tree arrived and was decorated after the children had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, a treat for them on Christmas morning. (Imagine! Now nothing less than 50 presents seems to suffice.)

Today many American homes have a tree in them for 4-5 weeks. But our modern custom of keeping the Christmas tree with us for many weeks gives the dear ol' Tannenbaum plenty of time to, shall we say, go downhill a bit. And dropping needles all over creation is part of that process if you, like me, let the water in the little bucket evaporate.

Enter at this point Gary Chastagner, a plant pathologist at Washington State University, who researches a number of issues about conifers. One of his many projects is working on breeding Christmas trees that hang onto their needles longer (even after we rather impolitely cut them down).

"This isn't genetically modified work, just pretty much traditional genetic selection and horticulture," he explained to me recently.

Chastagner and his colleagues cut branches from hundreds of different conifers each fall and test them for needle retention. They note the small percentage of the trees that have the best ability to retain their needles. The work is repeated for several years for consistency's sake. Cuttings from the "winning" trees then are then grafted onto rootstock using traditional horticultural methods to establish seed orchards.

"We just use the natural variation within the trees in this regard," Chastagner said to me. "In the past, this type of genetic selection has been done for growth, size, shape, density of branches and the like. Now we are doing it to improve post-harvest characteristics."

The power of selective breeding is one known in horticulture and animal husbandry alike. It was well understood by Charles Darwin as he cogitated on his theory of Mother Nature's parallel efforts in the wilder world as well. And when you are on your hands and arthritic old knees peering under the sofa, you have to wish plant researchers like Chastagner well in their varied work.

E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. A library of past Rock Doc columns is available at rockdoc.wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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