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Wet Weather Creates Christmas Trees Troubles This Year

It's officially the holiday season, which means Christmas shopping and Christmas tree decorating. However, a historical nuisance in the Christmas tree industry, brought on by recent wet weather, may threaten Christmas trees this winter season.

A water mold with multiple strains, Phytophthora root rot, has been around since the beginning of the Christmas tree growing market. However, this year due to an above-average rainfall during the growing season, the country's number two Christmas tree producing state is experiencing some problems.

"We had an unusually large amount of rain during the warm months and that enhances the spread of Phytophthora," Professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University John Frampton said.

Even though the region did not undergo a tropical system last summer, rainfall was 150 percent of the normal for the summer.

"Fronts made more progress into the Southeast than normal," Expert Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

This progress could account for the more than 5 inches above-normal rainfall for June, July and August in Raleigh, N.C.

While this increase in rainfall did not cause significant flooding, it did induce an outburst of the Phytophthora root rot.

"The species we deal with is spread by soil moisture, so the more it rains and the more saturated the ground is the more water flow we get and the more it spreads in the Christmas tree fields," Frampton said. "In years like this past summer, we see a flareup."

Root rot is mainly a problem where fir-type Christmas trees grow. Fir trees are the preferred type for most consumers in the U.S.

"The fir-based industry is in the southern Appalachians, the Northeast part of the country, the Lake states area and the Pacific Northwest," Frampton said.

These regions see the majority of the problems with root rot, although there are different species of the root rot that can impact trees in other areas.

There are no economically or environmentally feasible ways to battle Phytophthora, especially when the trees affected are planted over widespread areas.

Some potential treatments include chemical controls, such as fungicide doses and monitoring plant nutrition. Changes in cultural practices such as planting on ridges, away from infected trees and the removal of infected soil may help as well, according to Superintendent and Assistant Professor in the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center at New Mexico State University, Owen Burney, Ph.D.

However, some tree-growers are experimenting with the growth of an alternative type of tree to try and reduce the root rot problem.

Turkish Fir trees are now being planted in areas typically infected with Phytophthora due to the tree's higher resistance to the water mold. However, these trees have their own downsides too, especially to the tree-grower.

"It gets off to a slower growth than Fraser Fir and breaks bud earlier, so some years we have more frost damage on our Turkish Firs," Frampton said. "And the deer really like to eat on it."

Despite problems Phytophthora might bring to tree farmers this year, the beauty of this year's Christmas trees and the amount of trees on the market should not be influenced.

"The trees that consumers will be seeing in the markets and buying are really very healthy because of the rain we have had a really good crop of Fraser Fir," Frampton said. "The diseased trees die and don't make it to the market, so consumers should really not be affected much by this problem."

This comes as good news to holiday-lovers, as nationally Americans will buy between 25 and 30 million trees just this year.

The most popular holiday trees sold annually are the Leyland Cypress, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir and the Virginia Pine.

For a brief description of the characteristics of America's most popular Christmas trees, see the chart below.

Most Popular US Christmas Trees

Favored Region
Leyland Cypress
Green-Grey Color & No Sap
Douglas Fir
Pacific Northwest
Dark Green-Blue Color & Soft Needles
Fraser Fir
Northeast & Pacific Northwest
Dark Blue-Green Color & Pleasant Smell
Virginia Pine
Small to Medium-Sized & Easy to Trim
Tree information attributed by the National Christmas Tree Association.

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