Western nurseries raise Fraser firs for Eastern growers
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
St. Nick isn't the only one who does a lot of Christmas-related traveling.
North Carolina Fraser fir Christmas trees grown from seedlings raised in Oregon's Willamette Valley have close to 6,000 miles under their belt by the time they end up in homes on the East Coast and the South.
In North Carolina, second only to Oregon in growing Christmas trees, Fraser, which is a true fir, is the flagship tree.
But because nursery space is hard to find in the Tar Heel State, some of have to be grown into seedlings outside the state before being planted out in plantations in North Carolina.
One of the largest growers of Fraser fir seedling stock in the Northwest is Brooks Tree Farm near Salem, Ore. The farm is owned and operated by Dave and Kathy LeCompte.
"I feel a little bit like a traitor, helping out the competition," Kathy LeCompte jokingly said. She added, however, that North Carolina-grown Fraser firs do not often compete head-to-head in the same cities with those grown in Oregon and Washington.
The nursery, which offers close to 30 different evergreen species, began growing Fraser fir nursery stock in 1985, mainly to diversify, she said.
Seed from Fraser fir cones is collected in late summer in North Carolina and shipped to the nursery and put in cold storage before being direct-seeded by machine into fields during early spring. The LeComptes place their orders for the seed two to three years in advance.
Each year, Brooks Tree Farm nursery orders 10 to 20 pounds of Fraser seed, enough to produce 100,000 to 200,000 seedlings. The seed costs around $200 a pound.
After three years in the field most of the bareroot Fraser seedlings, which grow more slowly than nobles, are dug in January and February and put into cold storage awaiting shipment.
The remainder goes into transplant beds for a year.
Each seedling is checked for soundness before being bundled with other Fraser seedlings and packed in paper bags.
Most of the seedlings are shipped to growers and wholesalers in North Carolina, as well as to North Carolina State University, which uses many in research projects.
About 20 percent of the trees end up in Pacific Northwest plantations.
LeCompte said that there have been problems with Frasers in some growing areas, especially North Carolina but also in Oregon.
"They as a species really need high summer humidity, and in Oregon it's too dry, and in their native North Carolina it's actually too wet," she said. "They're (North Carolina growers) starting to have more problems with root rot disease and moving away from Fraser fir because of crop losses."
LeCompte said North Carolina is experimenting with other true firs, and with grafting Fraser fir onto resistant rootstocks. "We're participating (in the latter) with North Carolina State."
While rather easy to manage, Fraser fir seedlings do have problems with aphids once in a while and can get sunburned, LeCompte said.
While Fraser fir is falling in disfavor, Nordmann fir and its close relative Turkish fir are gaining in popularity, LeCompte said. "We're growing a lot more of those."