By Lisa Swann

Some of you may have brought a perfect, green Christmas tree home by now, but consider the fate of some Leyland cypress and Frasier firs that could not be sold this year.

Needle blight, which turns Leyland cypress trees’ needles brown, has been impacting many growers. After the needles turn brown, they fall off. Some farmers found they have fewer of their best-selling trees to sell this year.

Frasier fir with root rot.
Frasier fir with root rot. Credit: Linda Haugen, USDA Forest Service,

Jim Butler, owner of Homestead Christmas Tree Farm in Hampton, Ga., tells NPR in Atlanta, “It’s been going on now for quite a few years, and we’ve tried many things to control it. It’ll go away on its own, and anytime we have a wet summer it seems to come back.”

Very few of Butler’s trees got needle blight this year, but he says he knows some tree farms in Georgia that are completely brown. Rather than killing the tree, needle blight makes them unsellable.

Frasier firs are also having a problem with root rot (Phytophthora). The root rot also seems to be brought on by unusually large amounts of rain.

Each year, 30 to 35 million American families purchase a fresh, farm-grown Christmas tree. Some 7 million trees are harvested in Oregon and 3 million in North Carolina. John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University, tells ABC news, “The organism that causes this disease was introduced in the 1900s, we think, so it’s been with the industry ever since it started in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s.”

The Associated Press reports that until root rot is contained, North Carolina famers could suffer Christmas tree losses of up to $6 million per year, while Oregon’s Christmas tree industry could lose up to $304 million per year.

To try to contain the disease, farmers are growing other fir species that are resistant to root rot. Geneticists like Frampton are grafting Frasier fir into the roots of a resistant fir species and conducting studies to locate the genes within Turkish fir that cause resistance with the hope that they could be transferred to the Frasier fir.

Many Christmas trees, including Frasier fir and Leyland cypress are still healthy, so for those belated in selecting a tree, rest assured you can still find one.


More on Christmas trees from Loose Leaf:

From Tinsel to Mulch — How to recycle your Christmas tree
O Christmas Tree! — Learn about the history of American Forests and the National Christmas Tree
Deck the Halls — Why live trees are usually the more environmentally friendly choice