While you're busy decking the halls with boughs of holly this season, geneticists, plant pathologists and forestry professors are hard at work making better Christmas trees for the future. In North Carolina, the second largest Christmas tree producer in the United States after Oregon, scientists are developing ways to keep the Fraser fir resistant to blight. The trees, praised for their shape, scent and needle retention, face a threat from Phytophthora root rot, a fungal disease introduced to the U.S. from Southeast Asia in the 1700s. Currently the disease has hit about 7 percent of North Carolina Fraser fir plantations--and once the fungus is in the soil, it's impossible to get rid off. "It's a concern possibly to the long-term sustainability of the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina," notes John Frampton of North Carolina State University.

Working with horticultural scientist Eric Hinesley, Frampton is testing ways to graft Fraser fir shoots onto the roots of other firs such as momi fir and Turkish fir, both of which are less vulnerable to the root rot. They are also examining whether this approach will make it possible to grow Fraser firs in eastern North Carolina, where the trees cannot grow on their own. And Frampton and plant pathologist Michael Benson are trying to develop Fraser firs that can actually resist root rot. So far they have inoculated seedlings in a greenhouse with the disease--hoping the few that survive will provide a heartier stock.

Meanwhile plant pathologist Gary Chastagner of Washington State University and geneticist Ulrik Nielsen of the Forest and Landscape Research Institute in Denmark are developing trees that better retain their moisture--and so drop fewer needles on your carpet. "One of our major efforts is improving the quality of trees available to consumers," Chastagner says. "That is why post-harvest research is very important." So far, they have found that some clones of the Nordmann fir--a top-selling Christmas tree in Europe--retain water after harvest better than the originals, and that noble and Fraser firs are the only species that consistently don't shed needles or discolor when they are displayed dry. As for what to put under the tree, you're on your own.