A new balsam fir on the path to Christmas stardom

SMART trees’ profit potential may also help rejuvenate the Nova Scotia industry with new recruits to replace the number of producers leaving the $55 million dollar per year industry in Nova Scotia

🎶🎤O Christmas tree O Christmas tree How lovely are thy branches!

That German carol could be singing the praises of SMART balsam fir, a new balsam fir variety inching up in 12 Nova Scotia test sites and destined for stardom in Christmases to come.

The SMART seedlings, developed in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, are expected to be a game changer for the region’s Christmas tree industry and put a lot more money in growers’ pockets. The industry in Nova Scotia is now worth an estimated $55 million annually, factoring in the complete supply chain.

“So, if you can plant some seedlings that can return you 80-90 per cent premium trees instead of 10 per cent premium trees,” he said, “that’s a big return on investment.”

Jim DeLong, president of the SMART Christmas Tree Research Cooperative Ltd., set up to help finance the research and commercialization effort, says, “with naturally occurring Christmas trees, you have 10 percent premium grade trees, and we’re looking at 80-90 per cent premium grade trees with the SMART tree seedlings.” Last year, on average, premium trees sold for $72 USD each.

Although SMART seedlings are not yet commercially available, they are attracting plenty of grower interest.

For now, the SMART seedlings remain in the field trial research phase, while cloning, through somatic embryogenesis, a particularly complicated process with balsam fir, proceeds apace at Phytocultures Ltd., Clyde River, P.E.I. to get the numbers up to meet anticipated grower demand. Somatic embryogenesis reproduces exact copies or clones of plants through an asexual process that relies on a single somatic cell.

These newly developed trees are following a path to commercialization set out by Greg Adams of GWA and Applied Biosciences Consulting, of Sussex, N.B., a forestry consultant hired with funding from Genome Atlantic’s Genomics Opportunity Review Program (GORP) to take SMART balsam fir to the next level.

Executive Director of the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia Angus Bonnyman said, “thanks to the work that the consultant did, through the money from Genome Atlantic, along with money from the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, we think we have the right clones.”

SMART is an acronym for senescence modulated abscission regulating technology, developed by Dr. Rajasekaran Lada, founding director of the former Christmas Tree Research Centre, Truro, and Professor Emeritus, Department of Plant Food and Environmental Sciences, Dalhousie University.

Dr. Lada and his team developed 90 original genetic lines, or varieties, of SMART balsam, by selectively breeding for desired characteristics that are naturally occurring. Some of the resulting genetic lines were planted in Dalhousie’s Plumdale Orchard at the Agriculture Campus in Bible Hill and in three other sites in Nova Scotia. Not all of the lines made it to the cloning stage and for those that did, advanced testing was needed to determine which ones perform best in which soils and conditions, and the most promising lines had to be cloned in sufficient numbers for growers to buy. Those gaps are now being filled.

Jay Woodworth, Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc.’s Christmas Tree specialist, who oversees the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia’s (CTCNS’S) research program, says for Phytocultures to produce clones via somatic embryogenesis, “selected genetic lines slated for cloning have to be removed from cryo-storage, and are encouraged to form an embryo, so that a germinate, or tiny tree, is produced within a petri dish.”

However, this procedure hasn’t been all smooth sailing. She said, “each individual line takes a little bit of tweaking to get it to grow up to the best of its ability in the lab setting.” As a result, she indicated, “only some of the lines have gone through the process to become trees, and even less of those have been planted out in the field setting to be tested in external conditions.” Before they reach the field, clones from Phytocultures spend about a year in the nursery at Scott & Stewart Forestry Consultants Ltd., Antigonish.

“We’re trying to focus now on which lines are the easiest to grow and which ones perform the best, once planted out in their intended environments,” explained Ms. Woodworth. So far, clones from more than 30 lines have been selected for field trials and have been performing well across Nova Scotia.

The first of 360 seedlings from the selected clone lines were planted in the fall of 2020 as part of a SMART tree three-year field evaluation, funded through the Canadian Agriculture Partnerships’ Crop & Livestock Management Trials program.

Phytocultures Laboratory supplied most of the seedlings with the remainder coming from Dalhousie University’s inventory. Nine evaluation sites were established, three in each of Nova Scotia’s active Christmas tree regions: Southwestern, Northeastern and Cobequid.

Each site has 44 trees planted across four rows in six-foot by six-foot spacing. Four control seedlings, conventionally produced and provided by Scott & Stewart Forestry Consultants were also included at each site for comparison purposes. The seedlings were tagged, pinpointed with GPS accuracy, and are seasonally evaluated.

Pre-dating that effort, and while SMART trees were in development at Dalhousie, select lines were field planted in more informal trials in 2015, and some of them are now four to five feet in height. These initial seedlings were incorporated nto the new rigorous evaluation process implemented in 2020 and they too are now tagged and GPS mapped. A total of 446 of these initial seedlings are growing in three Nova Scotia sites: St. Andrews, Onslow Mountain, and New Germany.

Jay Woodworth, Perennia Food and Agriculture. Photo: John Hillis, Truefaux Films

Credit: Photo: John Hillis, Truefaux Films

John DeLong, president of the SMART Christmas Tree Research Cooperative Ltd

Credit: Photo: John Hillis, Truefaux Films

Credit: Photo: John Hillis, Truefaux Films

The latter site is on Mr. DeLong’s property where he devotes 1,200 acres of his mixed farming operation to Christmas trees. A third-generation Christmas tree grower with one of the bigger operations in Nova Scotia, he said his 115 SMART seedlings were interplanted with his other trees. Roughly 12 clone lines are believed to be represented in the mix.

All the SMART trees are being monitored for quality characteristics such as growth, flush date, colour, budding, needle length etc. Additional test sites are planned as more seedlings become available and more trials are required.

Early results are encouraging. Ms. Woodworth said, “one thing we’re really excited about is that all of these trees, regardless of what line they are from, are late flushers.” That means their buds break late in spring, making them less susceptible to late frosts, an important consideration in an era of climate change.

Memorable for Mr. Bonnyman is the spring of 2018, “when we had an unseasonably late frost and a freeze in Nova Scotia. A lot of the new growth in our Christmas trees were impacted by cold.” He anticipates SMART balsam fir will insulate the industry against incidents like that, which could become more frequent as climate change takes hold.

Describing the distinctive qualities of SMART trees, Mr. DeLong said “I would just say it’s superior characteristics.”

For consumers, that means SMART trees will offer superior shape, longer needle retention, and great balsam fir colour and aroma. Their improved insect and disease resistance bring added attractions for growers, as does the tree’s architecture which promises far less manual shearing. Still, the biggest bonus all round may be longer needle retention.

As Ms. Woodworth explained, “we’ve been cutting trees for export since the last week of September, so if you think of it, those trees need to last for Christmas. They have to be good at holding onto their needles.” Ninety per cent of Nova Scotia’s Christmas trees are sold outside the province. Half of them are shipped to other parts of Canada and the rest are exported, mainly to the United States, but also to countries as far away as Saudi Arabia and Panama.

SMART trees’ profit potential may also help rejuvenate the Nova Scotia industry with new recruits, who so far have failed to replace the number of producers, mainly an older demographic, who have left or are leaving to retire. According to Mr. Bonnyman, the province now has 350 active growers.

Most importantly, SMART trees represent a potential boost for the Maritimes’ hard-hit rural economy. “It’s quite a privilege to still make a living in rural Nova Scotia and to be part of the Christmas celebration,” acknowledged Mr. DeLong. “So, if you can plant some seedlings that can return you 80-90 per cent premium trees instead of 10 per cent premium trees,” he said, “that’s a big return on investment.”

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