Special to The Sun
Oklahoma Christmas tree growers can pick any of the native adapted species of tree to grow and sell.
Unfortunately, that list is very short. To combat the fact that the poor choice of the eastern redcedar, which dries out quickly and becomes a fire hazard, is the only Oklahoma native conifer that has seen use as a Christmas tree, Chuck Tauer, retired forestry genetics professor at Oklahoma State University, began looking for an alternative in the early 1980s.
“This thing started for me as a research project. I was interested in (Virginia pine) as a potential for Christmas trees in Oklahoma. Because Oklahoma, other than slow-growing Scots pine, doesn’t really have much it can grow as a Christmas tree,” Tauer said. “The whole idea was to develop a locally adaptive land Virginia pine for use in Oklahoma.”
Because Virginia pine was being used elsewhere in the south as a Christmas tree, Tauer believed it would be the best fit for Oklahomans.
The first step of this research was to collect Virginia pine seed from across its native range, which consists of much of the eastern part of the U.S. In total, seed from 123 trees, representing 38 different natural stands of Virginia pine was collected and grown in an OSU nursery in 1984.
“We knew Virginia pine would work, we just didn’t know where to start,” Tauer said. “They were doing so-so, but we knew they could do better.”
He was right. After the trees were field planted in 1985 and cooperating Christmas tree growers planted some trees, data was taken over the next seven years. The data taken from the field plantings, combined with input from the growers, were used to identify the best individual trees from the best families in the original collection.
In 1990, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Forestry Services Division, began grafting these top-notch trees into a seed orchard to produce seed to grow improved seedlings for sale to Christmas tree growers.
“The market that we cater to in growing our own is the choose-and-cut market,” Tauer said. “You can go to Lowe’s and buy a fir, shipped in from who knows where and cut who knows when, and in who knows what condition. What we have to offer is a fresh cut, locally grown tree.”
Other than being able to simply produce a live Christmas tree in Oklahoma, the Virginia pine has many other advantages.
“Growers only sell a certain percentage of what they grow, as only a certain percentage becomes sellable. We have improved the percentage of sellable trees that you can grow,” said Tauer. “We improved the quality of the tree they sell and the growth rate so that they can sell them a little sooner.”
A Scots pine takes 8-10 years to produce a sellable tree, while Virginia pine takes 4-5. Due to Tauer’s research, Virginia pine is now the most commonly grown Christmas tree in Oklahoma.