About Us - Development and use of Genomic Tools to improve Firs for Use as Christmas Trees

During the last 30 to 40 years, the science and technology behind plantation Christmas tree production has developed rapidly, particularly in Europe and North America where annual consumption exceeds 80 million real Christmas trees. Today in the United States, Christmas trees are an important specialty crop. American consumers purchase 28-32 million Christmas trees annually with retail value exceeding $1 billion. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees on a total of 350,000 acres and employ over 100,000 full or part-time workers. Although many types of conifers are used for Christmas trees, true firs (Abies spp.) have become increasingly popular because they are ideally suited for use as Christmas trees due to their natural conical shape, pleasant color and aroma, and strong branches for holding ornaments. Additionally, many fir species have excellent postharvest needle retention allowing them to be harvested and shipped weeks before their use in consumers' homes. While firs cannot be grown in all regions of the country, they represent an estimated 40-50% of the volume of trees sold and a larger portion of the industry's revenue due to their higher retail value. For these reasons, and to concentrate efforts, the first phase of this long-term project will focus solely on fir species.

Long-term goals and industry needs

The long-term goal of this project is to improve the sustainability and profitability of the U.S. Christmas tree industry by developing and using genomic tools to produce low cost and high quality Christmas trees with properties desired by consumers. Specifically, the project will:

1. Identify single nucleotide polymorphic markers (SNPs) with predictive power for desirable traits in true firs through a two-step process:
    a. Identify candidate genes by RNA sequencing (RNA Seq)
    b. Screen SNPs in candidate genes for association with phenotypes using targeted
        sequencing of genomic DNA.

2. Use SNP markers to accelerate production of trees with superior postharvest needle retention and resistance to Phytophthora root rot, and leverage marker-informed breeding with data from a separate industry-supported study of adaptability to climate change.

3. Conduct surveys and focus groups to increase our understanding of consumer Christmas tree preferences and improve growers' ability to respond.

4. Educate and advise growers in genetic improvement techniques, seed orchard establishment, and using improved genotypes to produce high quality Christmas trees desired by consumers.

Stakeholder involvement

Growers from the major Christmas tree production regions of the U.S. will be the primary stakeholders of this project, and have provided input into its direction via regional strategic planning sessions. In these sessions, growers consistently requested research on genetic improvement and the development of fir with resistance to Phytophthora root rot. The preferences of Christmas tree consumers were also taken into consideration using survey data collected annually by the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). The framework of this project was presented to the NCTA and seven state/regional Christmas tree associations from Connecticut, Inland Empire (eastern WA, ID, and MT), Michigan, North Carolina, Pacific Northwest (OR, WA, and ID), Pennsylvania, and Puget Sound (western WA) who expressed their full support. Throughout project implementation, stakeholders will be involved via several integrated routes including a national Grower Advisor Panel with representatives from the NCTA and growers from five production regions. Consumer input will be obtained from a national survey and key regional growers will provide input via focus groups. An integrated outreach program will disseminate existing and discovered information to assist growers in producing and marketing high quality Christmas trees desired by consumers.

Consortium Partners

Penn State University

National Christmas Tree Assoc.

NC State University

Michigan State University

Washington State University

UC Davis University of California