Clark Granger stands in his snowy field, looking proudly upon thousands of budding Christmas trees. At five years old, they are bigger and thicker than a typical balsam fir, and when they hit the market in two years, Granger doesn't expect to see a sad-looking Charlie Brown tree in the bunch.
The firs represent the latest selective breeding efforts by Maine growers to produce a tree that grows faster and denser, drops fewer needles, resists pests and requires less trimming.
"This is the sort of tree that we're trying to grow," Granger says, squatting next to a 3-foot-high (1-meter-high), perfectly shaped fir.
Other growers across the country also are tapping science to produce better trees and entice customers away from artificial trees, which now represent the majority of Christmas trees displayed in homes.
Weir Tree Farms in Colebrook, N.H., came up with a Fraser-balsam combination that has the fragrant smell of balsams and needle retention Frasers are known for.
They call it the "Fralsam," and it was a happy accident for grower William Weir, who mixed Fraser and balsam seeds by happenstance.
"Once a person has any of these, they don't want anything else," Weir said.
Clones for Christmas
Cross breeding in trees is rare and usually happens only by accident. Most tree farmers are relying more on science.
In the South, growers have been cloning specialty trees for decades, according to Clarke Gernon, a grower in Louisiana.
On his Shady Pond Tree Farm in Pearl River, La., Gernon has produced a hybrid of the Arizona Cypress and Alaskan Cedar called Leyland Cypress, a tree whose leaves are green and white with some gold.
"It's pretty darn spiffy stuff," he said.
Good news for growers
Granger, a plant pathologist whose Maine farm is about 20 miles from the state capital Augusta, said he hopes to bring his trees to market about a year shy of the typical eight-year growing span.
That's good news to the state's 230 or so growers, who started thinking about how to build a better Christmas tree more than two decades ago.
Tree experts spent years scouring the United States and Canada for the best balsam firs based on shapeliness, rich color, fast growth, needle retention and resistance to disease and insects.
Growers transplanted cuttings from those trees onto regular stock. The resulting parent trees — or phenotypes — were grouped together on seed farms to ensure that only the very best trees cross-pollinated each other.
While Maine's trees may be bigger and greener, even with selective breeding no two trees will ever turn out exactly alike, said Maxwell McCormack, a retired University of Maine forestry professor.
"There is no perfect Christmas tree except, my wife says, ours. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said.