Rainy summer spurs fungus growth on Christmas Tree farms - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

Rainy summer spurs fungus growth on Christmas Tree farms

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NEWLAND, NC (WBTV) -

Larry Smith said he felt sick Tuesday walking through a Christmas tree field he has along the Toe River in Avery County. Half of the Frasier Fir trees were brown, others starting to show glints of it.

"They're no good anymore," said Smith.

Some of the trees had ribbons that were put in  the tops of them back in July when Smith's crew was picking out trees to cut this year to send down the mountain to the corner lots.

Instead, each brown tree represents years of work wasted, he said.

The problem is a fungus that is in the soil called Phytophthora. It was brought inadvertently to the United States more than a hundred years ago from Asia. It is in the soil now in North Carolina and in many other places and in sufficient concentrations, can affect plants.

"About two thousand plants can be a host for the fungus," said Agriculture agent and Frasier Fir expert Douglas Hundley.

Most of those plants, he said, can survive the fungus just fine, but not the Frasier Fir. "It is among the top five in vulnerability." 

The fungus attacks the roots and can kill the tree in just a matter of months. The excessive rain this summer, according to Hundley, caused the Phytophthora to expand and move within the soil and attack more trees than in normal years. Once the fungus is in the soil, it can stay for an indefinite period of time.

Hundley said one farm stopped growing Frasier Firs in one affected field for more than 20 years but when they resumed production there, trees started dying within months. Smith said areas with high concentrations of the fungus cannot be used for Frasier Firs anymore.

Chemical treatments have not been effective with Frasier Firs because those trees have deep roots and spraying will not get to where to fungus is attacking the tree. One solution, said Hundley, is to graft the Frasier Fir to a Japanese version of the tree.

That Japanese version is not affected by the fungus yet allows the Frasier Fir to grow normally.

It is more labor intensive and expensive, but could be a solution until something else is found. Agriculture experts are looking at other versions of Christmas trees to see what will grow and tolerate the fungus.

Smith said he wants to keep Frasier Firs as his main product. "It's what people want," he said.

Most trees, said Smith, have survived and the industry is not yet at a crossroads insofar as fighting the fungus. He hopes it won't ever get to that. Experts say they are working to make sure that never happens but for the foreseeable future, at least, growers will experience some tree loss.

Smith said if it keeps up, the wholesale price farmers get might have to be raised to cover the losses and additional costs.

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