My Life Scientific
Helen Pilcher quizzes the founder of the Christmas Tree Research Centre to find out his secret formula for avoiding a carpet covered in pine needles…
Helen Pilcher quizzes Prof Raj Lada, the founder of The Christmas Tree Research Centre
I hate sweeping up Christmas tree needles.
Can you help?
Yes. Needle loss is a big problem. In Atlantic Canada where I work, Christmas trees are a $100m industry. We export three million trees annually, but in the past entire shipments have been lost when the trees lost their needles. It struck me that no one had a clue what was going on. So seven years ago I founded the Christmas Tree Research Centre to find out.
What causes needle loss?
All our work is in our native balsam fir. We’ve compared trees that lose their needles quickly with trees that keep them for longer, and found many different factors that contribute. You see changes in the levels of various genes, enzymes, lipids and nutrients. We’ve identified a key hormone, ethylene, that is involved, as well as over a dozen different volatile compounds that promote needle loss.
Should I water my tree? Absolutely. It’s essential.
Is there anything I can buy to help my tree keep its needles? It’s not in the shops yet, but we’ve created something that doubles the time your tree will keep its needles. You add it to the water.
Can you tell me what’s in it? is it a bit like the recipe for Coca-Cola?
All our work is protected by confidentiality agreements, so I have to keep it a secret. Sorry!
Do fairy lights affect needle loss?
Yes, they can actually help. We tested different coloured LED lights and found that white and blue bulbs can increase needle retention by around 120 per cent. Trees also keep their needles longer if they experience a brief cold spell close to cutting. So we’ve developed technologies to help with that. We could ship our trees around the world three times without them dropping needles.
How about cloning the perfect tree?
We’ve created something that we call the SMART Christmas tree. We crossed together trees with the best shape and highest needle retention, then used tissue culture methods to make new seedlings. We now have some trees that are over a year old, but they’re not technically clones because they contain genetic material from two parents and not from any other source.
Where can I get one?
The embryonic seedlings are currently being mass produced and offered to industry. Next year we anticipate a million seedlings will be ready for planting, but it will be a while before the trees are available to buy. A 150cm balsam fir can take 10 years to grow.
What’s the best tree to buy now?
My favourite is still the balsam fir. We always have one. It’s a goodlooking tree and has a beautiful fragrance.
Have you ever had an artificial tree?
No. I never would.
And finally: star or fairy?
I have a star on my tree, always.
Prof Raj Lada is founding director of the Christmas Tree Research Centre at Dalhousie University, Canada
In Atlantic Canada, the growing of Christmas trees isn’t just something to worry about in the winter – it’s a year-round industry that employs 20,000 people