Project GREEEN helping Christmas tree industry thrive

MSU Extension senior educator Jill O'Donnell is a fixture in the Michigan Christmas tree industry, working on issues such as precocious coning.

For nearly 20 years, Project GREEEN has been funding research that addresses some of the most pressing plant agriculture needs.

Throughout those two decades, Jill O’Donnell has been an essential figure in the Michigan Christmas tree industry every step of the way.

O’Donnell, who has worked at Michigan State University (MSU) for more than 35 years, is an MSU senior Extension educator. In 1995, O’Donnell stepped into her present position, which is currently funded by Project GREEEN.

Her statewide appointment allows her to troubleshoot issues for a variety of tree species in different environmental scenarios. She provides education on numerous topics, including information on getting started with growing Christmas trees, and pest and nutrient management.

Collaborating on projects with colleagues such as Bert Cregg, an associate professor in the MSU departments of Forestry and Horticulture, O’Donnell sees herself as a resource for growers looking to improve their Christmas tree operations.

“Growers can call me anytime if they have a problem, and I’m fortunate to be able to travel around the state to visit with them,” O’Donnell said. “I can then relay those things back to campus, which is filled with experts and specialists who are willing to work with me on any issue our industry is facing.”

O’Donnell and Cregg have been busy the last several years with a Fraser fir malady called precocious coning.

Fraser fir is one of the four leading Christmas tree species in Michigan, alongside Douglas fir, Scots pine and Colorado blue spruce.

The trees are not native to Michigan, however, indigenously residing in the southern Appalachian Mountains at high elevations. Acidic, well-draining soils and areas with abundant rainfall are the preferred Fraser fir habitat, presenting problems for Michigan growers needing to replicate those conditions.

O’Donnell and Cregg have created online resources for growers interested in Fraser fir, one of which compares Lansing, Michigan, weather to that of Boone, North Carolina — a location within the tree’s natural range.

“Lansing gets roughly half the rainfall annually that Boone does, so that’s obviously problematic,” O’Donnell said. “It’s also a few degrees warmer on average during midsummer in Lansing, and that tells us that irrigation is extremely important here.”

Precocious coning causes early cone production in Fraser fir, a process that normally doesn’t take place until the trees are at least 15 years old. The cones break apart and leave an unsightly stalk that devalues the trees. Removal is done by hand, a costly and laborious undertaking.

“It’s not a sustainable method of dealing with precocious coning to hand-remove all of the cones, so we need to find a preventative measure,” O’Donnell said. “We’re looking at growth regulators and alternative methods that kill the cones but don’t hurt the trees.”

The researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of precocious coning, but they have uncovered some clues. O’Donnell said that high soil pH appears to be the primary limiting factor in successful Fraser fir plantings. This can contribute to rapid cone development and can be difficult to combat, given the multitude of soil types in Michigan.

The precocious coning work began with Project GREEEN funding and now receives national dollars from the Christmas Tree Promotion Board.

“Christmas trees are a beloved aspect of our culture for many people,” O’Donnell said. “I’m thrilled that we are supported at both the state and national levels to be responsive to grower needs and ensure that we have a thriving industry.”

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