The Pest Management Methods That Deliver Picture-Perfect Christmas Trees
By Molly Darr, Ph.D.
Growing up in rural Virginia, it was an unwritten rule that we could never settle for a plastic tree at Christmas time. We had to get the real deal, and after hours of bickering and wandering through our local choose-and-cut lot, our family almost always selected a Fraser fir. It’s not that the other locally grown varieties weren’t beautiful in their own way; my brother and I just couldn’t deny the perfect shape, smell, and color that Fraser firs had to offer. This was a tradition we shared for almost two decades, and I never stopped to wonder where these perfect evergreen specimens came from.
Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) Christmas trees are grown in several states in the northeastern, Midwest, and northwestern United States, but most of them are grown in the Southeast, in a region comprising western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. Remarkably, over 85 percent of the Christmas trees grown in the southeastern U.S. are produced in North Carolina. This amounts to over 4 million live trees produced just in North Carolina annually, with Fraser fir accounting for 98 percent of this total. Fraser fir is native to parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, and it rose to popularity as a Christmas tree for several reasons—including a uniform conical shape, fragrance, deep green color, sturdy branches, and excellent needle retention—and these characteristics have helped propel this species to become a national best seller. In fact, Fraser firs grown in Ashe County, North Carolina, were selected as the official White House Christmas tree for the Biden, Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations!
Because of the value consumers place on aesthetics, there is an extremely low (nearly nonexistent) tolerance for damage from pests in the Christmas tree industry. In a new article published this week in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management, my colleagues Dave Coyle, Ph.D., of Clemson University and Robert Jetton, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University and I provide a review of pests that can impact Fraser fir Christmas tree production in the southeastern United States. The foundation for this work was laid by the efforts of Jill Sidebottom, Ph.D. (recently retired from NC State), who made significant contributions to Fraser fir pest management strategies in the region. Her work provided fundamental information about pest management, and in our new article we summarize current management strategies, suggest areas in need of additional research, and propose new management strategies for this tree crop in the Southeast.
Producers prioritize pest and disease management and go to great lengths to ensure their crop is pest-free. Pests like Phytophthora root rot, elongate hemlock scale (Fiorinia externa), balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae), balsam twig aphid (Mindarus pinicola), and Cinara aphids pose a complicated threat to Christmas tree production in the southeastern U.S. Growers want to limit pesticide usage to avoid complications such as growing pesticide resistance, but there are also pests of regulatory concern, and managing all these pests must be done with potentially increasing material and production costs. Even so, these issues do not change consumers’ unbending aesthetic standards—clean, perfect-looking trees are what they’re after.
While emerging pests are an evolving threat to Fraser fir Christmas trees, this paper can serve as a foundational guide for Fraser fir pest and disease management and aid future research and extension needs. Ultimately, effective pest management will rely on a comprehensive integrated pest management plan that incorporates cultural, chemical, and biological control methods and potential genetic improvements. This integrated approach can help ensure a steady supply of naturally grown, great-smelling Fraser fir Christmas trees that will brighten homes and make family memories for years to come.
Journal of Integrated Pest Management
Molly Darr, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral associate specializing in forest health and invasive species extension in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation at Clemson University. Twitter: @DarrMolly. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.