19 December 2019

A sustainable future for Danish Christmas trees – with fewer fallen needles


A milder climate now makes it possible to cultivate noble fir for Christmas trees in Denmark. The noble fir doesn’t require much fertilizer, can be grown without pesticides and could become a new Danish export to the rest of Europe. In recent years, University of Copenhagen researchers have been at work refining the tree to suit European conditions. With roughly one billion kroner in annual exports, Denmark is Europe's largest exporter of Christmas trees.

Researchers have clipped trimmings from the 45 select trees and grafted them onto common firs. This grafted noble fir top is the beginning of a new tree being grown for seed. Photo: Poul Elgaard.

Dancing around the Christmas tree ought to be more sustainable. To achieve this, researchers are developing a more sustainable Christmas tree for the Danish and European markets. Here, the noble fir holds great promise as an organic Christmas tree for the future.

"Noble fir is a coveted Christmas tree throughout Europe. However, it has been tricky to grow as the buds and tops are highly susceptible to damage from frost and cold weather. As such, the species has largely been used for ornamental garnish only. The somewhat milder climate that we have experienced in recent years, along with improved cultivation techniques, has made it easier to produce these beautiful trees," according to Ulrik Bräuner Nielsen, a senior researcher at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management.

Fewer fallen needles and increased sustainability

The noble fir, which originally comes from America’s Pacific Northwest, is not plagued by too many diseases and insects. As such, pesticides are not needed to grow it. Nor does the tree require much fertilisation. This makes it an interesting cultivar for Danish Christmas tree producers and a good option for a sustainable alternative to the widely sold Nordmann Fir. The tree has other qualities.

“The Noble Fir’s unparalleled ability to survive when cut means that it doesn’t drop needles. It has a bluer hue than the Nordmann Fir and a fantastic Christmas scent,” explains Ulrik Bräuner Nielsen.

In their quest for a more sustainable Christmas tree, researchers have turned their attention to the American states of Oregon and Washington, where the noble fir is from. The researchers have learned American cultivation techniques and refined and adapted them to suit the classic European sought aesthetic of a more layered tree rather than the fuller and tighter appearance of American Christmas trees.

Trees to be marketed in coming seasons

Researchers have successfully managed to cultivate noble fir Christmas trees with an aesthetic that Danes are familiar with from, for example, Nordmann Fir. In collaboration with commercial partners, the researchers have looked at 21,000 noble firs around Denmark, all from HedeDanmark’s seed plantations. 750 of the most impressive trees were selected.

“By way of DNA analysis, the same type used by police for solving criminal cases, it was possible for us to find the progenitors of these 750 trees. Thereafter, we selected 45 of the best tree specimens from the best families to start up new seed production,” explains Ulrik Bräuner Nielsen.

Using the new growing techniques from the project, Christmas tree growers can now grow more and more beautiful noble firs that will become available in upcoming holiday seasons. Extensive Christmas tree production from the seeds of the 45 original trees is expected be on the market in ten years, when the new generation of trees becomes large enough to harvest.