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The Missouri Botanical Garden is on a mission to save the Fraser fir before it goes extinct

 Missouri Botanical Garden Horticulturist Travis Hall climbs a Fraser fir to collect cones in 2019.
Alanna Sanders
Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden Horticulturist Travis Hall climbs a Fraser fir to collect cones in 2019.

An invasive sapsucking insect is endangering one of America’s most beloved Christmas trees. To help conserve it, the Missouri Botanical Garden is collecting data on how best to grow it.

An invasive sapsucking insect is wreaking havoc on the Fraser fir, one of the most popular Christmas trees in America. Even President Joe Biden has an 18-foot-tall Fraser fir as his family’s Christmas tree in the White House this year.

To help save it, the Missouri Botanical Garden is working to store seeds from the endangered tree before it goes extinct in the wild.

The invasive bug, known as the balsam woolly adelgid, is originally from Europe and came to the U.S. in the 1950s. It starves the tree by cutting off its access to water and nutrients.

In the last couple decades, the insect has contributed to significant population loss in the cool temperatures and high altitudes of the Fraser fir’s native Appalachian Mountains habitat.

Ninety percent of mature Fraser fir trees in the Great Smoky Mountains alone have been killed in the last 50 years, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. And when Fraser firs die, that has a trickle-down effect on the forest.

“It really leads to a completely different ecosystem makeup, which results in other plant and animal species declining and potentially going extinct,” Becky Sucher, senior manager of living collections for the Garden, said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. 

As part of the conservation effort, horticulturists from the Missouri Botanical Garden collected about 17,000 seeds in the Appalachian Mountains in 2019. Now a team is examining the seeds they collected with a new X-ray machine that allows researchers to peer inside seeds and determine which ones are viable for growing baby firs.

So far, horticulturists have successfully propagated eight Fraser fir seedlings and are collecting data on the plant to help conserve it for future generations. But growing the tree is proving to be a challenge, even for the Garden’s green thumbs.

“We know that this plant is not going to like the heat and humidity of St. Louis. And that's OK, we can still learn a lot by growing it,” Sucher said. “We can keep it alive to some extent, but it's not going to look like the Christmas tree that's in your living room right now. But we can keep it alive and be able to tell the story to people.”

The story the data tells — what kind of soil and how much water the tree needs to thrive — will help tree farmers save the “Cadillac” of Christmas trees, as Wayne Harmon calls it.

Harmon owns Starr Pine Christmas Tree Farm in Boonville, Missouri, and has been growing Christmas trees for 36 years. He’s leading a research committee for the Missouri Christmas Tree Association that’s testing if other trees that look similar to the Fraser fir thrive in Midwest climates, since the Fraser is a customer favorite.

“The Canaan fir will grow in Missouri’s environment, and when you look at them side by side in the field, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference,” Harmon said.

Even so, Harmon isn’t giving up on the Fraser.

“The tale of the Fraser is not done yet,” he said. “There's a lot of effort being put into saving the Fraser.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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