Connecticut Tree Farmer Helps Discover New Species That Threatens Christmas Trees | Connecticut Public Radio

Connecticut Tree Farmer Helps Discover New Species That Threatens Christmas Trees

Dec 23, 2019

Richard Cowles said owning a Christmas tree farm is magical. 

“Having a Christmas tree inside the house is wonderful, but having a couple acres of Christmas trees, it’s just gorgeous,” said Cowles, who owns a Christmas tree farm in East Windsor. “Like today, where we had a little bit of an ice storm, and the sun comes up and you’ve got millions of diamonds sparkling in your Christmas trees ... it’s beautiful.”

Cowles is also a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. He recently helped discover a new organism, after experimenting with ways to grow healthier fir trees. 

While doing those experiments, Cowles studied unhealthy trees from a farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut. 

When his team of scientists put diseased tree tissue under a microscope, they noticed that the cells looked different. “It was [study co-author] De-Wei Li, who was looking at this new isolate of disease from the Christmas tree, and he said, ‘These oospores have really thick cell walls,’” Cowles said. “I didn’t really know what that signified, but he did.”

Oospores are sexual spores found in certain microscopic organisms. The fact that these were so thick, Cowles said, signaled this might be an entirely new organism. 

After running some genetic tests, the team confirmed that hunch. They’d stumbled upon a new species of Phytophthora, a water mold, which rots tree roots. Cowles got to name it.

“It’s Phytophthora abietivora,” Cowles said. “In this case, it simply means that the Phytophthora species that we isolated eats fir trees, or it consumes fir trees.”

Phytophthora is a funguslike organism. And you’ve probably heard of its effects. It’s the same disease responsible for the Irish potato famine, although potential consequences here would be less dire.

Cowles said the discovery of this new species could help tree farmers guard against transporting infected plants. And he said it will hopefully make for hardier Christmas tree stock.

The research appears in the journal Plant Disease.