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How extreme weather may influence your Christmas tree selection

December 06, 2018; 10:00 AM

The Christmas tree is often considered a poignant symbol of the holidays and is a staple in most celebrators' homes around the globe.

The "perfect" Christmas tree can take eight to 10 years to grow, yet only a few days of extreme weather to destroy.

Both extremely wet weather and extremely dry weather can have short- and long-term effects on Christmas tree farms, Doug Hundley, seasonal spokesperson with the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), said.

Christmas tree farm

In this Nov. 2011 file photo, Joseph Kang carries a Christmas tree as he restocks the inventory at Noel's tree farm in Litchfield, N.H. A tight supply of Christmas trees this season could force consumers to not get the exact tree type they want, but there are enough evergreens to go around. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Many tree growers do not use irrigation systems and usually take their chances with the weather.

Therefore, if there is a dry spell, growers may experience a problem with planted seedlings during the first year in the field. However, after the first year, trees become relatively resilient to dry conditions, according to Hundley.

In extreme cases of drought, the conifers may experience stunted growth and may become stressed and unusually dry.

Meanwhile, wet weather is typically very beneficial for growing trees in the short term. Abundant rainfall can help trees grow better, larger and fuller.

However, excessive rainfall can also cause a number of diseases, with each species having different vulnerabilities to these diseases, Hundley said.

One of the biggest threats to tree farmers are root rot diseases, which can lead to large losses of trees at all ages.

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Phytophthora root rot, caused by several Phytophthora species, has been associated with significant damage to Fraser fir conifers since the 1960s. Phytophthora is a funguslike organism that inhabits the soil and infects many woody plants through the roots.

It can lie dormant in the soil for several years, waiting for a susceptible host, such as Fraser fir, and the right environmental conditions, including higher soil temperatures, above 54 F, and saturated soils to infect plant roots.

Due to this persistence, once Phytophthora becomes established on a site, the area is typically no longer able to be used for Fraser fir production. Therefore, this disease is one of the major limiting factors for Christmas tree growers.

Other Christmas tree species are also susceptible to Phytophthora but may not be at as high of a risk.

Static AP Christmas Tree Farm

Fog drifts through a Christmas tree farm near Starks Mountain, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Fryeburg, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

"When we have rainy years, it [Phytophthora] tends to expand. It will move into a larger area of the field, and we will lose trees that were already for sale," Hundley said. "It's a very difficult for the tree growers themselves."

"You'll never know it on the tree lot or any retail situation because those trees won't ever go to market," he said.

The above-ground symptoms of Phytophthora root rot are visible from the outside. For example, on Fraser fir, these symptoms include yellow-green needles, wilting, slow growth, dead branches and tree death.

Needle cast diseases also affect different species of conifers. Needle cast diseases thrive in humid, wet environments, according to the North Dakota State University.

For example, Rhizosphaera needle cast, caused by the fungus Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii, infects primarily Colorado blue spruce, while Stigmina needle cast, caused by the fungus Stigmina lautii, affects both blue spruce and Black Hills spruce.

These diseases can harm the trees and cause them to become unsellable at any time in the tree's lifespan.

A tree is more likely to recover from a needle cast disease than a soil disease like root rot, which gets into the root system and kills the tree.

Christmas tree farm picking

A worker at Grupp's Christmas Trees, center, ties one of the two trees that David Naugler bought to his car on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Harmony, Pa. The first weekend in December is traditionally a big sales day for holiday trees according to Jack Grupp, owner of the farm. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

In comparison to many annual crops on the market, extreme weather may have a far greater impact on Christmas trees due to the length of their lifespan.

"When a field of corn is flooded, it ruins that crop for that year. And when a field of Christmas trees is flooded, it can ruin that crop for many years," Hundley said.

Wet weather can also make it difficult for tree growers harvesting fields of wholesale trees, who often harvest by hand with feet on the ground and by tractors and truck.

"Rain, sleet, snow or mud, the trees must be harvested," Hundley said.

Consumers are typically not affected by tree diseases and weather impacts, although retail tree prices may rise if the supply is detrimentally hurt.

While there have been reports of tree growers who suffered this season in the eastern United States, most notably in the mid-Atlantic, due to the abundant rainfall, there should not be a significant impact on the average price of a tree.

Christmas tree prices increased 17 percent from 2015 to 2017, with the average price rising from $64 to $73, according to a study conducted by NCTA and Square, Inc, a financial service.

However, industry experts from the NCTA estimate prices will hold steady this year, with plenty of trees to go around so that every consumer who wants a real tree will be able to buy one.

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