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The Rock Doc: Capitol Christmas Tree data could help us improve tradition

Mon., Dec. 16, 2013, midnight

I know we are still only in Advent. But at this point in December, my mind starts to turn toward Christmas. It just can’t be helped, especially with all the ads featuring Santa.

Christmas is about tradition: traditional foods and songs, church services. For a few geeks, Christmas is also an ideal time to get in a little bit of scientific research. What could be better than to combine some of the traditional activities of the season with the chance to learn a bit more about the natural world?

Katie McKeever is a graduate student in plant pathology at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center (REC) in Puyallup. She has been hard at work in recent weeks learning about how moisture is lost or retained from a truly mega-Christmas tree. An 88-foot-tall Engelmann spruce recently was shipped from north-central Washington to Washington, D.C.

It took about 25 days for the spruce to move from its home in Washington to a place of pride at the Capitol. The tree was harvested from the Colville National Forest in Pend Oreille County. The last time Washington gave the Capitol its Christmas tree was in 2006. That one came from the Olympic National Forest on the West Side.

Once this year’s tree was cut, McKeever placed three small sensors in the canopy of the great tree as it lay on the bed of the semi that would haul it across the country.

“The sensors are data loggers that automatically record temperature every 15 minutes to provide statistics about the ambient environment inside the tree canopy,” McKeever told me.

Professor Gary Chastagner, also at the Puyallup REC, has long worked on various Christmas tree issues. He’s an expert on what’s called the post-harvest moisture and retention of needles of Christmas trees. To be sure, most Christmas trees are not 88 feet tall, but some of the issues with mega-trees and the kind in your living room are similar.

In general, helping Christmas trees retain moisture can help them keep their needles. If you are tired of trying to get a lot of needles out of your living room carpet each January (one tradition I would gladly skip), you might wish McKeever and Chastagner well with their work.

The research on the Capitol Christmas Tree involves cooperation between the U.S. Forest Service and WSU. Forest Service technicians from the Colville National Forest who have accompanied the tree are taking periodic samples of small twigs from the enormous tannenbaum. The samples are sent to Puyallup, where they are carefully weighed, dried thoroughly in an oven and then reweighed to determine how much moisture was in the twigs.

The data the WSU researchers are gathering is part of their ongoing work to make recommendations that can help improve the quality of Christmas trees for consumers. That’s the technical challenge for the tree specialists. For the rest of us, their work is just a way of improving our tradition, year after year.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.


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