Fraser firs will grow in north Georgia, but the downside is that the tree is affected by the root fungus phytophthora. If not treated, it can kill infected plants.

Czarnota hopes to combine the Momi fir rootstock and Fraser scion, or shoot, into a tree that will grow throughout much of Georgia and the Southeast.

“I don’t expect it to take over the market, but it will be a great addition,” he said. “A lot of work needs to be done in selecting good Momi grafting stock for desirable uniformity. It’s a lifetime project, and great potential exists in trying to cross Momi fir with other firs.”

Researcher John Frampton at North Carolina State University works on the tolerance of Momi fir to phytophthora. He has found the plant is very tolerant to the root disease.

North Carolina fir growers have a very difficult time dealing with the fungus. Frampton is trying to cross Momi and Fraser fir to breed a hybrid phytophthora-resistant fir. In the meantime, he encourages North Carolina growers to plant Momi-Frasier grafts, Czarnota said.

One of Czarnota’s collaborators, 82-year-old Earl Worthington, grows Christmas trees in Lovejoy, Ga.

“Dr. Worthington was one of the first growers to try to grow firs in the Georgia piedmont region,” Czarnota said. “He actually got greenhorns like Dr. Frampton and me moving in the right direction, and has been a wealth of knowledge for many Christmas growers here in the Southeast.”

Worthington hopes to someday grow enough Fraser firs to avoid buying from growers in western North Carolina. He bought 300 Fraser firs this season.

Worthington has been grafting Fraser firs onto Momi firs for the past 15 years. In the beginning, it took 10 years for him to grow an 8- to 9-foot tree. “I can now produce a 5- to 6-foot tree in five to six years,” he said.

The problem he now faces with his grafting efforts is the inconsistencies. “Some (of the trees) turn out very yellow, some very stiff, some are green all year, some flush early and some flush late,” he said. “Grafting trees is definitely a project for someone with patience.”

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