Scientists Build "Smart" Christmas Tree With Long-Lasting Needles and Fragrance

Scientists have figured out how to engineer a Christmas tree with longer needle retention time. What other bells and whistles can we expect from these so-called "smart" trees?

Christmas treeWe live in the era of smart grids, smart phones, smart entrepreneurs, and all other manners of smartness. It may be no surprise to learn, then, that we're on our way toward having a "smart" Christmas tree—one capable of retaining its needles for twice the normal length of time.

That's according to Dr. Raj Lada, a plant physiologist at the Christmas Tree Research Centre at Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. "The cutting edge is that we should have to have a tree," Dr. Lada said on NPR, "which I call a smart tree."

The idea came a few years ago when a devastated small-business owner called on Lada. The man was ruined: His entire crop of Christmas trees had already lost their needles. As Lada began to investigate, he learned that it wasn't a blight or a disease that was likely to have caused this crop's loss. Rather, it was a disorder common to many Christmas tree producers: Trees often shed their needles quickly, and there was no consensus over how to fix the problem.

The Christmas tree business in the Atlantic provinces is worth $70 million a year; 2.5 million trees grow there annually, and the vast majority make their way to the U.S. market. Lada came to realize that Nova Scotia's competitive edge was in the balance. "We felt we had to do something," Lada told unews.ca.

He was able to convince the Canadian government of the severity of the situation, landing $5 million in grant money. His goal: learn how to raise the needle-retention rate on the balsam fir, Canada's principal Christmas tree export. The state of the research was "zero before we started," Lada tells Fast Company. There was simply "nothing on balsam firs."

What Christmas trees need to assure them a longer life, he found, is hormone therapy. Lada's team experimented with blocking the action of ethylene, the same hormone that causes bananas to ripen and go rotten. By so doing, they were able to double the life of the tree.

This is just the first step in a longer journey. "The agenda is to develop the smart Christmas tree," says Lada. A three-pillared research program will 1) learn more about the fir's basic physiology, 2) experiment with breeding a better tree: one with high needle-retention, a blue-green color, and a pleasant fragrance, and 3) explore green pest-control strategies, with the goal of developing an "eco-friendly tree," says Lada.

It's a propitious moment for the Christmas tree industry, which finally has bold leadership. "There was no champion before," says Lada.

[Image: Flickr user shedboy]

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