Imagine a Fraser fir Christmas tree, grown tall and strong over nine to ten years, with its silvery pine needles and its strong, well spaced limbs, perfect for hanging heavy Christmas ornaments.
Now picture a tiny Grinch-like fungus called phytophthora root rot, a mold that grows in wet soil. Thanks to the wet spring, some tree farmers in the local area and throughout the U.S. are reporting lost trees from phytophthora, which can quickly attack roots and kill healthy Fraser firs.
Bob Eagon, owner of Bob's Trees in Galway, said he's having a good season this year, selling mostly Fraser firs and balsam trees, but phytophthora root rot has taken a serious toll.
Tom Herba, left, and his son, Mike Herba, co-owners of Herba Acres Tree Farm in Johnstown, work together on bailing a balsam tree at their farm Thursday.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
"The tree grows up for seven, eight, ten years and then it just dies because the fungus kills it and there is nothing that I can do," Eagon said. "I've lost the equivalent of acres to it."
Mike Goderie, one of the owners of Goderies Tree Farm in Johnstown, said the phytophthora root rot can spread quickly through trees of the same species that are planted close together, which is typically the case on tree farms.
"One of the problems that we've seen is that, we plant all of our trees with a machine, so we make a continuous furrow and the trees go in it. And the roots tend to follow that furrow and it spreads from tree to tree," Goderie said. "When it hits that section of trees, the tree is done pretty quick. It'll hit them in a matter of a couple of months, they'll go from being a gorgeous tree to browning right up. Really once they start showing any signs of it, there isn't anything you can do to stop it short of just cutting it down and getting rid of it."
Eagon said finding a way to treat his fields with chemicals to prevent the root rot would be "extremely expensive" and not feasible for a tree farm of his size. He said the fungus also spreads through water, sometimes creating "a pyramid shape downhill" of infected trees.
To date, no fungicide has proven effective to control phytophthora on Christmas tree plantations. So once it's in the soil, that's it.
"Since we can't treat the hundreds of acres of trees we have here, we just have to continue to rotate the crops and plant Fraser firs where there are no wet problems," Eagon said. "When the rot spreads through the fields it just makes more and more fields for us that are unable to grow Fraser firs. An alternative we've seen that can grow in those fields are Canaan firs."
Caanan firs are sometimes considered a hybrid of the Fraser fir and the balsam fir. Balsam firs, a dark green needled fir, are also a popular Christmas tree, although their branches are more flexible than the Fraser's. Several local tree growers that grow mostly balsam trees, including Herba Acres Tree Farm and Quackenbush's Trees and Wreaths in St. Johnsville, both said they've avoided root rot problems this season.
Goderie said balsam firs stand up better to root rot.
"Balsams are a little susceptible to it, but when the Fraser fir gets it the tree just up and dies, but the balsam shows a lot of signs of stress first," he said. "Tree growers now are looking at ways to grow more resistant strains of trees. One of the ones they've been doing a lot of study on is the Turkish fir. Everybody says it's more resistant, but whether it will ever materialize to the point where it's economical to grow it as a Christmas tree; that I don't know."?
Growers in Oregon, the nation's No. 1 Christmas tree producer, have been experimenting with the Turkish fir for more than 30 years. That species and the Nordmann fir, also native to Eurasia, have shown promising resistance to root rot.
One study estimated the potential losses to Oregon's nursery and Christmas tree industries of up to $304 million a year if phytophthora is not properly contained. Douglas and Noble fir are the dominant holiday tree species in the Pacific Northwest.
In North Carolina, the No. 2 producer, it costs farmers up to $6 million a year, said John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
But despite the root rot, the Fraser fir remains a popular Christmas tree, and the growers who have an ample supply benefit when they've managed to grow them in dry soil and avoid the rot.
"Everybody wants a Fraser fir Christmas tree," Goderie said. "The demand on them is higher than ever."
The Associated Press contributed to this article