New Brunswick

Creators of SMART Christmas tree promise needles that last 3 months

Researchers at Dalhousie University are developing what they call a SMART balsam fir, which can retain needles for up to three months.

Longtime grower appreciates needles that won't drop early but says daily watering will do the trick

A researcher at Dalhousie University works on developing a Christmas tree that will stay fresher, longer. (Dalhousie University)

From Sprite to sugar water and Aspirin, Nancy Secord has heard all the home remedies for preserving Christmas trees once they're taken home from her tree farm in Upper Coverdale.

"One man gives it one of his nitro tablets for his heart condition," said Secord, who with her husband owns Yuletide Christmas Tree Farm about 17 kilometres west of Moncton.

"I don't know what that's supposed to do, but we recommend straight water."

Sometimes you shouldn't mess with mother nature, and really, who wants to keep a tree up for three months?-  Nancy Secord, Christmas tree grower

​Secord said as long as they're watered daily, balsam firs should last through the Christmas season.

But with people putting their trees up earlier each year — last weekend was Secord's busiest so far — some are looking for innovative ways to enjoy their fresh-cut trees for longer without sweeping up too many dead needles.

Enter the smart tree.

The SMART balsam, standing for senescence modulated abscission regulated technology, is being pioneered by a team at the national Christmas Tree Research Centre on Dalhousie University's Agricultural campus.

Raj Lada, a Dalhousie faculty of agriculture scientist and professor, said the team is developing new technologies that will retain needles on the balsam fir for up to three months.

'Not just the money value'

Lada said there's value in keeping needles on for so long.

"It's not just the money value, it's about your business, your credibility, for consumers to know," Lada said. "'I bought a tree, I set it up in my home and it lost its needles the second day' —  they won't be going back to the same producer or retail shops.

"It's exactly what happens when you ship it to the United States or any country. You will lose your credibility if you don't have a quality product."

To make an ideal balsam fir, Lada said, the researchers identified the genetic markers in the top-ranking trees and made a hybrid of the plants using desired traits.

That tree was then cloned, and seedlings were raised from those materials.

Needle retention, solid structure

"The SMART tree is a combination of the best needle retainers as well as the ones that have preferred architecture our producers would like to sell the trees for," said Lada.

"The process being adopted is, after having identified these high needle-retaining pairings, we crossed these two trees, extracted immature embryos and mass multiplied them … to cultivate."

Perhaps most important, Lada said the trees will "certainly have a nice smell."

More expensive

It might be years before we see these trees on display, but growers could be planting SMART Christmas trees as early as next year.

Lada expects the trees would be about $5 to $7 more expensive than traditional trees.

The technology is expected to increase the sustainability of the industry, especially for producers who export their products.

"In addition to the technology, we developed a storage and transportation technology, because our trees are shipped around the world," he said.

"When they're exported to Dubai, it takes 23 to 25 days to arrive, then it reaches a place where it's 40 degrees in temperature … so the technologies will allow basically  the shipment of trees where you want it, yet it will keep the needles for a longer time.

"The trees can go around the world twice with the time we have, so it's a great advantage."

Why mess with nature?

A balsam runs approximately $40 on Secord's tree farm.

She said the SMART tree might not be the best fit for her U-Pick.

"Sometimes you shouldn't mess with mother nature, and really, who wants to keep a tree up for three months? I don't know," she said.

"We know our customer base. You hate to up the prices all the time. It would depend a lot on price … if you don't keep it watered, or have it next to a fireplace or heat register, they will dry out and you will lose your needles.

"But by just keeping it watered they will retain their needles very well."

With files from Information Morning Saint John