O Christmas tree, how lovely is thy research

OSU expert helps keep Oregon No. 1 in the nation for holiday evergreens


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here are no picture-perfect Christmas trees at Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

That’s the point, explains Chal Landgren, OSU Extension Service’s Christmas tree specialist. The goal at the research center, also known as NWREC, is an effort to test these trees for breeding and cultural practices – pesticide use, cutting – that will benefit the Christmas tree industry. Oregon ranks No. 1 in the United States in commercial Christmas tree production, selling about 4½ million trees a year.

“We’re not trying to make them look like Christmas trees,” Landgren says, while giving a tour of his orchards. “We’re trying to get them to produce cones that will be used for seeds. As these trees grow up they will produce seed for the future crops of Christmas trees.”

The trees at NWREC range in age from 1-2 years to the seven to 10 years it takes to grow a mature tree. Landgren stops and towers over a tree that is about four feet tall with asymmetrical branches. He reads from a red tag attached to the tree.

“This particular tree is numbered 51-8-1. This comes from an area around Tillamook,” Landgren says. “It was a tree that was probably three or four foot in diameter. We hired a climber to get cuttings off the top.”

Landgren bends over to touch the needles.

“This rootstock is probably seven years old. But the graft is from a tree that is over 100 years old. It ‘thinks’ it’s an older tree than it is.”

Grafting the older cuttings to the young tree will prompt the tree to produce cones faster. “We get the exact replica of a tree we’re trying to get seeds from,” he says.

Over the last 11 years, Landgren has carefully cultivated the five seed orchards that cover 3.2 acres at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, 20 miles south of Portland.

douglas fir christmas tree farm
Douglas fir Christmas tree farm in the Willamette Valley.

“We’ve been doing progeny testing from seedlings of trees from all over the world and what we have grafted in here are the best of the best of those progenies,” he says.

Commercial Christmas tree production began in Oregon in the 1940s. By the mid-1950s, management practices such as shearing had been adopted.

Landgren has been a professor at OSU for 40 years and Extension’s lone Christmas tree specialist since 2008. His position takes on importance due to the size of Oregon’s Christmas tree industry: $120 million in 2018, ranking it as Oregon’s 11th-largest agricultural commodity in terms of value.

Landgren’s breeding program includes the two most popular tree species in Oregon grown for Christmas – noble fir and Douglas-fir. He also grows Turkish, Trojan and Nordmann firs brought to Oregon from the mountains of Turkey and the Republic of Georgia. Landgren has started what he believes is the first grafted Trojan fir seed orchard in the world.

“Trojan fir has performed exceptionally well in Oregon test sites, so we’re looking at it as a fast-growing alternative to Nordmann and Turkish fir,” says Landgren, who receives research funding from the Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

Landgren is breeding trees that will have traits amenable to consumers – branches that grow up so that ornaments can hang more easily. A dark green color. And also, superior keepability, which means how quickly the needles fall off after they’ve been harvested.

Landgren’s research program also includes finding sustainable alternatives to controlling aphids and other pests. One method could be biological control – the use of beneficial insects to manage other insects, which means using less pesticides.

OSU isn’t alone in conducting Christmas tree research. Land-grant universities in North Carolina and Michigan, the second- and third-ranked Christmas tree-producing states, also have Extension Christmas tree specialists.

“Breeding the better Christmas tree is going to be going on long after I’m gone from the university,” Landgren says. “It’s a long-term project and we’ve got a good start here.”

By Chris Branam

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