Bigger, stronger, faster growing, more resistant to damage… Dr. Justin Whitehill is creating the Captain America of Carolinas Christmas trees.

Whitehill is an assistant professor at North Carolina State’s College of Natural Resources. He is working to advance the Tar Heel State’s Christmas tree industry by addressing grower challenges through the application of genetic, genomic and molecular biology principles.

While historically a profitable crop, the Christmas tree market in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years. The retail value of Christmas trees nationwide first passed the $1 billion mark in 2011. Less than 15 years later, that figure crossed $2.5 billion in 2023.

“The rapid growth in consumer interest for real Christmas trees has solidified its status as an important agricultural commodity,” Whitehill explained. “And with North Carolina supplying around 20% of the nation’s real Christmas trees annually, Fraser fir Christmas tree production is an approximately $125 million to $250 million industry in the state.”

The Fraser fir is native to the Appalachian Mountains region, particularly in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. North Carolina is second only to Oregon in overall Christmas tree production.

There are also considerations beyond the monetary value of Christmas trees. According to Whitehill, Christmas tree farms create an economic incentive for landowners to keep from further developing their land. Approximately 40,000 acres of land are used in Christmas tree production in North Carolina alone. Dedicating this land to raising a native tree is both economically and environmentally prudent.

Whitehill’s research into Christmas tree genetics aims to address tree shortages and the ever-increasing prices as well as the sustainability of one of the state’s leading industries.

NCSU’s Christmas tree genetics program was founded in 1996 by Whitehill’s predecessor, Dr. John Frampton. He then began testing tens of thousands of Fraser firs in an effort to identify those with the best genetic characteristics. Frampton eventually started cloning and cultivating the best specimens.

In 2018, the program selected the best 25 varieties from nearly 30,000 trees and then planted them on six acres at the university’s Upper Mountain Research Station. The experimental grove currently has over 1,000 trees.

Dr. Justin Whitehill’s program’s trees have a noticeably straighter stem, which fosters branches growing in a more upward direction to form a symmetrical shape with a pointed top – the way consumers want their Christmas trees to look. Photo courtesy of Justin Whitehill

These genetically superior trees reached an average height of one foot taller than trees currently on the market today. “Our genetically improved trees grew an extra one to two inches a year,” said Whitehill. “So instead of having to wait seven to eight years for a tree to reach the typical commercial height, growers might only have to wait six to seven years.”

The program’s trees have a noticeably straighter stem, which fosters branches growing in a more upward direction to form a symmetrical shape with a pointed top – the way consumers want their Christmas trees to look. Normally, growers spend many labor hours shearing Fraser firs to slow their growth rate to ensure they develop into that preferred shape.

“Each of the trees selected for the orchard had a conical shape with dense branches, held their needles and grew a bit faster, so we expect their offspring to grow that way as well,” said Whitehill. “If we can grow trees that already look good, it’s going to eliminate the need for manual labor, which will save growers money. And it’s also going to make their customers happy.”

In addition to greater growth rate and appearance, the phenomenal firs also retain their needles longer after harvest. The program’s superior conifers lose less than 1% to 2% of their needles, even when removed from cooler environs.

Fraser firs use cones to spread their seeds; as the cones dry out, the seeds are released. While it typically takes 15 years for Fraser firs to produce cones, Whitehill’s super powered pines began producing cones in 2023. Researchers will soon submit the cones to a seed processing facility with the aim of distributing the seeds to growers sometime between 2026 and 2028. Whitehall predicts that trees planted from these seeds would be ready for consumers in the early 2030s.

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by Enrico Villamaino