P.E.I. company helps to produce better balsam fir for Christmas tree market
'This could potentially transform the balsam fir Christmas tree business'
A P.E.I. company has just sent its first shipment of 20,000 SMART Christmas trees from its facility in Clyde River, P.E.I., to a nursery in Antigonish, N.S.
SMART is an acronym for the technology used to create the Christmas trees, growing cell cultures into identical seedlings.
The company says the balsam firs are also "smart" because they will have many characteristics that consumers have been looking for, including more fragrance and needles that stay on the tree longer.
Biotech company Phytocultures was invited four years ago by the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia to look at work they were doing with Dalhousie University to create a better balsam fir.
The company has been working since then to perfect the process.
"They had identified superior trees, they did the bumblebee thing, taking pollen from one tree and putting it on the flowers of the other, and extracted the seeds, and proved the technology," said Don Northcott of Phytocultures.
"They called Phytocultures in to take the technology from the lab bench and bring it to commercial scale."
"Four years of trial and error, running down a lot of blind alleys, and working with different lines of Christmas trees," Northcott said.
"We have certainly learned a lot in the last four years. It's almost like starting up a freight train. It starts very slowly, but once it starts moving, it's very efficient."
Best of the balsams
Northcott said that, traditionally, people just went into the woods, collected balsam fir cones off the trees, extracted the seeds, and then took them to a nursery to be grown into trees.
He said the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia went through their wood lots and collected superior trees, and then used the pollen and flowers from them to create a better tree.
"So they have trees that have a nice colour, they have a nice natural shape, they're bushy, the branches are fully covered with needles, they have a nice fragrance," Northcott said.
"These trees, in addition to having a nice shape, good growing characteristics adapted to Maritime climates, they have a good fragrance," Northcott said.
"They also have that added benefit of — if you put these Christmas trees in a container and ship them to Dubai or to Mexico, where they do traditionally ship trees, they are going to arrive in good shape."
At the Phytocultures lab, Northcott described what they are doing as "a photocopy company for plants."
He said their technology allows them to propagate hundreds of thousands of identical clones, in a very small space.
Northcott said they also have to put the plants in cold storage, to put them into dormancy, similar to what happens during winter.
Northcott said it's a 22- or 23-week process to get the trees from frozen cryopreserved cells, to embryos, to emblings, then to seedlings.
Northcott said getting the SMART trees from seedling to market will take the Christmas tree growers almost a decade.
"Let's say eight years from now, so let's say 2030, you might be sitting around a Christmas tree that's actually in this lab right at the moment, and ready to put your presents under," Northcott said.
Project manager Melissa Delaney started at Phytocultures after graduating from the bioscience program at Holland College in 2018.
She said the SMART trees have lots of potential.
"It's a big industrial possibility, one single plate, it can make hundreds and hundreds of trees, potentially," Delaney said.
"The paper and pulp industry already use it, and I think bringing it to the Christmas tree market, it just adds a lot of potential for different varieties and hopefully a better needle retention, better aroma, unlimited possibilities."
Northcott said it's a long process, but with huge possibilities.
"This could potentially transform the balsam fir Christmas tree business," Northcott said.
"There are other types of Christmas trees on the marketplace. The balsam fir commands a bit of a premium price, and every bit of research that they can do, and add to the value to make the customer experience a little better, is a bonus."