by Maxwell McCormack

This  is an excerpt from  an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of Maine Woodlands.

     It’s not just in December; I think about Christmas trees throughout the year. They’ve been important in my career since the beginning. They provide seasonal income to residents of rural communities across our region, produced on sites where it’s advantageous to harvest the trees before they grow to a size that obscures landscape views.

     Silviculturally, structural diversity contributes benefits for wildlife, providing cover and browse. Migrating woodcock feed on earthworms that are easily extracted from rich, loamy, weed-free soils under the protective branches. Nesting birds find secure sites in the dense foliage of the whorled limbs. Combined cultural practices enhance mycorrhizal fungi – thriving in their symbiotic relationships with the trees’ roots.

     Following a decade of various forestry jobs and an abundance of academic challenges, in 1964, I got an offer to lead a project at the University of Vermont, conducting research for improving growth and development of spruce and fir Christmas trees. I defied the cautions impressed on me by forestry colleagues, who told me, “Don’t get involved with Christmas trees. There is no benefit to a forestry career.” I accepted the job.

    The Christmas tree industry in the eastern U.S. dates to the 1800s. In 1901, a Norway spruce (Picea abies [L.] Karst.) plantation was established in New Jersey for a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm. About that time concerns about conservation had brought artificial trees onto the market, but by 1909, five million natural trees were used by American families to help celebrate the season and, by the 1920s, New England was a major source.   
     The early industry developed by producing hand- tied bundles of like-sized trees, mass harvested from wild stands, and jam-packed into trucks and railroad cars for shipment.  As markets became more refined, basic cultural practices transformed “wild” stands into “improved natural” stands. The bundles evolved to single-tied, culturally improved trees. 

     During the 1950s producers began planting our supposedly “unplantable” balsam fir (Abies balsamea [L.] Mill.) Plantations became more efficient for application of the new cultural practices. These improved trees, combined with an increasing influx from Midwestern states of heavily sheared Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.), which required artificial shaping to be merchantable, focused consumer attention on tree shapes and foliage density.

     At the same time, in northern New England, especially Vermont and New Hampshire, growers were increasingly experienced nurserymen and women with significant green-thumb knowhow. It was a non-academic, real world, on-site, hands-on learning experience, matching growers who had an abundance of experience in plant husbandry, and trees they knew intimately, with me - an adopted, rookie participant.  Together we experimented and learned.

     For me, it was the study of a variety of miniature forests that had the same interactions and dynamics of growth and development that occur in all young forests. The lessons learned drastically reduced rotation lengths, while producing high-quality, robust, healthy trees. This formed the foundation of my subsequent work, commencing during the 1970s, in the forests and woodlots of Maine.

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