If you've turned to plastic Christmas trees because the real ones leave piles of needles behind, science is working to bring live conifers back into your holidays. A $1.3 million project in the US is trying to find which individual trees hold onto their needles most tenaciously. A team headed by plant pathologist Gary Chastagner is subjecting thousands of branch samples to a "rub test" and then meticulously counting the number of needles that fall off. By comparing shedding versus non-shedding pines, the team hopes to find the piece of RNA responsible for needle loss – and to develop an easy field test for identifying that trees that lack the offending nucleotide.
Genetic testing aside, the story of the commercial Christmas tree in the US is an interesting one. A tradition introduced by German immigrants, Christmas trees were mostly gathered from wild or semi-wild conditions until the 1970s. Unfortunately, harvesting all the young conifers from a forest has the side effect of letting understory shrubs and weeds to go wild. Competing for light against these quick-growing plants, pine tree saplings grew tall and spindly – a shape that's not particularly festive. Christmas tree farms sprung up to provide the perfectly conical trees that no longer existed in the wild. Hypernature at its most festive.