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…

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

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

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