The perfect Christmas tree is available. But it won’t be ready until 2036.

Matt Rancourt knew what he was looking for.

The 38-year-old walked through several Christmas tree lots in Washington last week before he found one that was a nine-foot-tall Fraser fir, with full branches and a classic triangular shape.

There has to be this perfect balance, he said. I really don’t like having holes in the wood, and I think you know when you do. It’s like a wedding dress.

In the future, his annual search may not be so tedious, thanks to researchers at the North Carolina State University Christmas Tree Genetics Program who have spent decades developing what they call elite Christmas trees.

Let’s face it: Most Christmas trees have their flaws. Some are thin and bald. Some have unruly branches and passionate angles. Some leave a headache from pine needles and are often targeted by the curiosity of overzealous cats.

Justin Whitehill, who heads the Christmas Tree Genetics Program, said the researchers’ goal is twofold: to breed Christmas trees that are so beautiful and trouble-free that they will entice faux-tree fanatics to convert to the real thing. deal, and to help growers sustain a $2 billion industry.

What is being done is using genetics to improve the characteristics of Christmas trees to make life better for consumers and growers, Whitehill said. The focus is on three main characteristics: growth, needle retention and shape. But also working around sustainability and making trees more climate resilient.

These characteristics are always top of mind for customers, said Robert Coulter, who has been selling Christmas trees for Gheens Trees in DC and Maryland since 2013.

Shoppers often ask how long the trees will live, whether the branches will break and how quickly the needles will fall, he said.

A lot of people actually when they come in, they’re like, Oh, the needles are falling. Married but not that. Better get a fake tree, Coulter said.

Fraser firs are the most popular every season, he said, because customers want tall and wide trees that can fit more ornaments and lights. Those trees tend to sell quickly, Coulter said. Some customers look for shorter trees to fit smaller homes or apartments, or look for something with a stronger scent, like balsam fir.

I’m just trying to make sure people leave here with a good tree and a smile, Coulter said.

Although the concept of gene modification in a Fraser fir may conjure up images of scientists inside a lab, the process is much more natural. It’s the same idea as what humans have been doing for millennia, to take certain traits and cross them to ultimately create an organism with a desired look or aesthetic, Whitehill said.

In other words: The same process as how we get a Chihuahua from a wild wolf.

Christmas tree work began in the late 1990s, when those involved in the NC State program began identifying the best Fraser firs in North Carolina. With the best needle retention, conical shape and strong branches, the Appalachian The species is already considered the cream of the crop when it comes to Christmas trees, in fact, the tree jollying the White House this year is an 18-foot Fraser fir from Fleetwood, NC.

So how do you make the classic Christmas tree even more perfect?

We screened 30,000 wild trees that came from the highest mountain peaks in western North Carolina, then cut them down to our best 25 out of 30,000, Whitehill said. That sample of 25 lost the least number of needles, showed the densest foliage and had the fastest growth of the trees expected to lose only 1 percent of their needles after reaching the desired height of six feet for about six to seven years.

Choosing the White House Christmas tree is all about height, visibility and brightness

To create the trees, the scientists used a technique called grafting, which combines 1,000 roots from other trees with cuttings from a sample of 25 to ensure that the elite Fraser fir genes are expressed in above the tree.

In 1999, the first generation of perfect Christmas trees began growing on a six-acre plot in Ashe County, NC.

You have to think of Christmas trees like people, Whitehill said. They live 80 to 100 years, or more. They take eight to 10 years, on average, to grow to high yield. And it takes them decades to produce children. They don’t start producing cones until they are between 20 and 25 years old.

In practical terms, that means cones from juiced Christmas trees won’t be removed and cleaned until the fall of 2026, Whitehill said. Growers can start planting their seeds around February of next year followed by a year of growth in a greenhouse and then six to seven years in a field as they reach their maximum height. .

So I hope that by 2036, the Christmas trees developed in our program will be available to consumers, said Whitehill. That’s just the nature of the game with Christmas trees. Unfortunately, it took a long time.

And while that probably means people won’t be able to buy perfect cookie-cutter Christmas trees for at least another decade, there’s still something to be said for the hunt that exists today.

For Rancourt, the shopper who compares finding a Christmas tree to buying a wedding dress, the process of choosing the perfect tree can be daunting. He said he spends hours each year finding the right decoration for the white lights and ornaments he has collected for 15 years but he loves it.

I like the moment of not knowing what you are going to get and having to go and hunt for it, he said.

At Dan and Bryan Trees last week, another shopper, Karen Donfried, asked for help finding a tree with a triangular shape that stood between six and eight feet tall. She and her husband often buy a real Christmas tree to fill their home with the scent during the holidays.

With the help of tree lot workers, they landed an 8-foot white fir.

Woohoo! Donfried, 60, exclaimed when the tree trunk was uprooted. This is it.

Within a few hours, it was placed in the warehouse of his house, it was placed in a corner with a window on one side and a bookshelf on the other.

We have high ceilings, so it fills the space well, she said. And you can put on a lot of lights, and you can fit all your ornaments.

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