COLLEGE STATION — They look like perfectly formed factory Christmas trees stuck in dirt.
But the only thing artificial about these living tannenbaums is the way life began — as clones rather than seedlings.
The first of several hundred cloned Virginia pines growing in Texas soil are ready this year to deck the halls in a modern way — a la gene-gle bells.
“The cloned tree is the future for Christmas trees in the South,” said Don Kachtik, a grower whose test tube-to-tree-farm pines are among the first in the state ready to be cut for the holidays. “We only have one type of tree that grows well in Southeast Texas, the Virginia pine, so we need a good one.”
A “good” Christmas tree to the consumer is two things: its straight trunk easily slips into a stand; and, it can hold lots of ornaments on full whorls, or the sets of limbs that fan out from the trunk. Growers want the whorls and stand-friendly trunk to be coupled with rapid growth and disease and insect resistance.
Santa Claus for the Christmas tree industry has come in the guise of forest researchers at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. They found that one can save a whole lot of time producing better trees by breeding good ones, then duplicating them by cloning.
“When we find a tree with good genetic material, we can capture improvements faster than going through the usual propagation,” said Dr. Craig McKinley, who with Dr. Ron Newton selected good “parent” trees for the experiment and developed the cloning technique.
The cloning process took about 15 months. This year’s consumer-ready trees first felt soil in April 1990 when they were potted and placed in a greenhouse for 6-9 months. Add at least another couple of years in the field and these trees have been on the wish list for about 5 years, according to Newton. In all, about 450 cloned trees are growing commercially in Texas now, but not all of those are ready for trimming this year.
Newton said consumers can expect more cloned Christmas trees to be available in coming years as growers opt to pay the price to get a more marketable tree. The traditional Virginia pine seedling costs less than 7 cents compared to the current cost of 75 cent to $1.50 for a cloned tree ready to plant. But the researcher expects the cost of cloned tree plantlets to decrease when the trees are mass produced.
It’s not likely that the cloned trees, especially those improved genetically to resist insects and disease, will cost consumers more, however, according to Dr. Mike Walterscheidt, forest specialist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
“Growers hope that with cloning, they will be able to sell 95 percent of the trees they plant,” Walterscheidt said. “Right now, only 60 percent to 70 percent are sold because the others are ugly or they die from disease or something.”
Kachtik agreed that what he wants under his tree (or trees) this season is a consumer’s saw blade in action. But he said purchasing a real tree — whether cloned or traditional — is also a gift for the environment.
“The oxygen trees produce while growing improves the environment,” he said. “and after Christmas, they can be mulched for the city parks.”