WSU researcher trying to get to root of Christmas tree rot

December 21, 2012 - Updated: 9:11 a.m.

Christmas trees are rotting in the ground across the Pacific Northwest because of a Grinch-like fungal disease that researchers from WSU and other universities will begin trying to combat.

Gary Chastagner, a plant pathologist at WSU, and a team of researchers from other universities have received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research Phytophthora root rot, a disease that costs the Christmas tree industry millions of dollars in damage every year. The team will also research needle drop-off in Christmas trees.

Phytophthora is a funguslike organism that thrives in damp, poorly drained places like the Pacific Northwest, which grows 40 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees, Chastagner said. An infestation may wipe out 75 percent of a tree grower’s field.

“It just kills the trees off before they really get going strong,” said Jim Heater, owner of Silver Mountain Christmas Trees in Sublimity, Ore. “It can take several hundred trees.”

The grant will allow Chastagner and his team to sequence the genes of plants, particularly true firs, to identify those resistant to both Phytophthora and needle drop-off.

“The long-term game plan is once we develop some markers, that would allow us to more accurately identify some resistant factors,” Chastagner said.

Those trees can then be bred to increase resistance to the pesky problems, and eventually make their way onto tree farms across the country.

The grant comes after leaders in the Christmas tree industry realized they needed to improve their stock genetically and lobbied legislatures for support, said project collaborator John Frampton. Frampton specializes in Christmas tree genetics at North Carolina State University.

“The exciting part of this, and what we haven’t had the resources for in the past, is to have enough funding to do the genetic sequencings,” Frampton said.

Chastagner has been a leader in tree research for more than a decade, traveling as far as Turkey to find a better Christmas tree. Certain breeds, he discovered, are more resistant to fungal infections and needle drop-off, primarily the Nordmann and Turkish firs, both native to Turkey.

“Growers could plant these trees in areas of their fields where there are moisture issues,” he said.

And growers say Chastagner has already left his mark on the billion-dollar-a-year industry.

“It’s transformed my business,” said Randy Rapetti, owner of Rapetti Farms in Camino, Calif.

Rapetti said prior to Chastagner’s work, he would lose entire fields to the fungus, which is particularly hardy in the Sierra region of California. Then, in 2003, Chastagner ran fir tree trials at Rapetti’s farm, testing for root rot resistance. Popular local plants like the white fir and the noble fir didn’t make it.

“All of them succumbed to Phytophthora,” Rapetti said.

Douglas fir and Nordmann fir thrived, with only a few lost in the Douglas group and none in the Nordmann group.

“All I plant on my property are Nordmann fir and Douglas fir,” Rapetti said.


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