A conifer makes its way to the Capitol

Seldom does a single tree receive so much attention. The towering conifer selected each year to serve as the Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., ends up at a lighting ceremony in front of Congress and given prominent play on newscasts around the country, but the lavish treatment begins long before the tree arrives at our nation’s capitol.

This year’s Capitol Christmas Tree came from the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont.The towering balsam fir is about 60 years old and 57 feet tall.

The process of selecting the Christmas tree begins years before harvesting, with several “candidate trees” chosen from a U.S. National Forest. From that moment, the chosen trees begin receiving some special treatment. While the other trees in the forest are left alone to survive on their own, the Capitol Christmas Trees-in-waiting are treated more like specimen trees in an arboretum.

This year, the Capitol Christmas Tree (www.capitolchristmastree2007.org) comes from the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The story behind the 2007 Capitol Christmas Tree that is right now standing on Capitol Hill began some 25 years ago, when several potential candidate trees were identified and regularly attended to in anticipation of the time when Vermont would be awarded the honor of providing the Capitol Christmas Tree. Over the years, steps were taken to keep the trees healthy, while improving their vigor and appearance.

Just as trees in a residential or urban setting face threats from weed whackers, bicycles, cars and compaction, the big balsam firs growing out in the forest faced their own dangers: flooding from an adjacent river, gnawing beavers, wind and lightning. They were also susceptible to the same types of disease and insect problems facing trees growing in a more manicured setting. So, as 2007 approached, project organizers stepped up efforts to safeguard, and improve, the health of the chosen trees.

In addition to regular trips to “release” the trees by clearing brush from their bases, Jim White, a forester from Vermont who was instrumental in selecting the trees, contacted Dennis Souto, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s state and private forestry division in Durham, N.H., who offered his assistance.

“We took a look at the trees, which were dealing with balsam woolly adelgid, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not really sure what to do to help them,’” says Souto. “We knew that there was a balsam woolly adelgid outbreak occurring in the Green Mountain National Forest, and the interesting thing was that we hadn’t really had one for a long, long time. The last outbreaks here that people were worried about were way back in the late 1960s, so the timing couldn’t have been worse.”

He says that there are many guesses, including a recent string of mild winters, for the outbreak of balsam woolly adelgid, but no definitive answers. “The truth is, we don’t really know what makes outbreaks begin, or what makes outbreaks end.”

For Souto, who is accustomed to looking mainly at the health of the overall forest, focusing on just a few trees was an unusual challenge. He reached out to Peter Wild, CEO of Arborjet. “I had been told that Peter could do wonders for hemlock trees with hemlock woolly adelgid, and he is an arborist who has experience working with homeowners and others on individual, high-value trees,” says Souto. “I contacted Peter, and every time we asked him for help or technical assistance or materials, he provided them.”

“Back then, we thought that 2007 was a long way out,” says Wild, who came from Massachusetts in 2005 to volunteer his time and materials to help give the trees a boost. Arborjet (www.arborjet.com) produces IMAjet tree injection systems, as well as the injectable formulations themselves. He chose a formulation designed for hemlock trees to treat the large balsam firs. “The woolly adelgid on the fir trees in the Green Mountains is a very similar pest to the hemlock woolly adelgid—they’re sucking insects that kill their host plant,” he explains. “The trees selected to be part of the Capitol Christmas Tree project needed to be treated several years ago, while they were in good health. They needed to be treated promptly, because nearby trees were starting to fail.”

For years before harvest, a group of dedicated volunteers regularly journeyed into the forest to help maintain the Capitol Christmas Tree—the type of special treatment usually reserved for high-value trees in landscape settings.

Before administering an injectable imidacloprid treatment, Wild says the first step is to be sure the tree is viable enough to treat: “As long as the tree still has a heartbeat, in other words, it’s still pushing new growth, then it is treatable.”

The injection method of treatment offered several benefits. For starters, the treatment time is quick, just 1 minute per caliper inch, with just one injection per tree. “It is primarily for the professional,” says Wild of the IMAjet system, “But you can learn how to use the system in just a few hours.” Out in the forest where vehicle access is limited, foliar spraying wasn’t an option. The small size of the injectable system made it easy to transport the application equipment to the site. The formulation itself offered a residual effectiveness up to three years, perfect for the time frame in question.

“Injections had a bad name from back when all the elm trees died,” says Wild of the technology. “Then, it was highly injurious to the trees and it was considered snake oil because it didn’t work. Injection really wasn’t looked at for 50 years, but with the onslaught of exotic invasive insects, and the fact that the emphasis is now on treating trees rather than simply cutting them down, the technology has been reengineered. It now offers an environmentally friendly methodology that’s safe; it’s safe for the applicator, it’s safe for the tree, it’s safe for the environment, and it works.”

With pests such as emerald ash borer, pine beetles and the woolly adelgid on the move, there is growing interest among arborists in this type of technology, says Wild. “Hemlock woolly adelgid, for example, is a huge problem throughout the Northeast, as well as in North Carolina and in the high-elevation ranges in the South, and it’s starting to show up in Michigan, too.”

Wild says that while injection treatments are more commonly used in urban/suburban settings, he has treated trees in forest sites before. “Hemlocks, which we designed the woolly adelgid formulation for, often grow in riparian areas, lining rivers and streams that feed our lakes and reservoirs,” he says. “You’re not going to save the forest, but you can selectively save trees in passive recreation areas, trees along high-visibility pathways, and trees along rivers and streams. You can even save one or two trees per acre for silviculture purposes.”

Souto says that a program of selectively saving hemlocks is being used in national forests. “Down South, especially, hemlock woolly adelgid is really killing all of the hemlocks,” he says. “The idea that some national forests down there came up with was to preserve the genetic diversity of our hemlock resource—so if we ever get to the point where biological controls work and we get beyond this problem, at least we’ll still have enough hemlocks and enough of the genetic diversity that existed beforehand, we can be reasonably sure that the forest will approach that in the future.”

Of course, the treatments prescribed for the candidate Capitol Christmas trees went beyond what can be done for the average forest trees and included fertility applications. Wild combined the first fertility application into the balsam woolly adelgid injectable formulation. The fertility boost was needed, in part because the selected trees were sporting unusually heavy cone crops near their tops, which were sapping much of the energy needed for growth and health. “When trees are stressed, if there are multiple stressors, that’s when you really start to have problem with tree health and tree vigor,” says Souto.

Wild prescribed Arborjet’s MICROjet mixable, a calcium-based product. “Evergreens respond fabulously to calcium,” he says. “Many people think you need to give a tree nitrogen, but you don’t. Nitrogen is not a food, it’s a catalyst that releases stored food, and it can actually promote insect or disease problems, because it promotes weak cell walls and elongated tissue.”

In many settings, trees are receiving added nitrogen whenever surrounding lawns and plants are fertilized. The balsam fir candidate trees, growing in a forest setting, were obviously receiving no supplemental nitrogen, but Wild says it wasn’t needed. “There were some suggestions that we apply nitrogen this past spring and summer, prior to the tree being harvested, to help green it up, and to help make the needles healthier, but I thought nitrogen would only cause the needles and twigs to be weaker, and I thought another dose of calcium would help more with green-up,” he says. Another application of calcium was made, this time a soil-drench formulation. The liquid calcium was mixed in 5-gallon buckets and brought out to the forest, where it was applied to the root buttress areas around the trees.

“Calcium builds strong bones,” says Wild. “That made the trees that much stronger to help withstand the cutting and handling and trucking.” Indeed, the Capitol Christmas Tree needs plenty of durability and vigor, as it must endure plenty of handling between the time it’s harvested and the point where it’s set in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Other trees in the surrounding area that didn’t receive treatment exhibited much more severe balsam woolly adelgid damage, with the effects lasting far longer.

Finally, says Souto, “We put down a broadcast humate treatment around the bases of the trees, sort of a wet compost tea that leaches out the beneficial ingredients.” All of this special attention, which forest trees aren’t accustomed to receiving, soon began to pay off. “We really could see some results this season,” says Souto. “As soon as the trees put out their 2007 growth, they just looked incredibly better.” Other trees in the area that were untreated seemed to lack vigor and were struggling more to deal with the balsam woolly adelgid, he says.

In August 2007, Capitol Grounds Superintendent Theodore Bechtol traveled to Vermont from Washington, D.C., to select the official Capitol Christmas Tree from among the candidate trees. “We’re looking for a tree that looks good 360 degrees around the tree. It has to be uniform in density, and it has to be a nice color,” says Bechtol, who chose a tree with just those qualities. (This year’s Capitol Christmas Tree is about 60 years old, and its top reached 57 feet from the forest floor with a drip line 22 feet out from the base.) “They’ve done an excellent job here over the years of taking care of the tree in terms of pest control, maybe a little fertilizer here and there. I feel like we’re getting one of the best trees that I’ve seen in the several years I’ve been doing this.”

The Capitol Christmas Tree is provided each year as a gift from a selected state and stands on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The 2007 Capitol Christmas Tree was harvested November 16 in Vermont—held in place by a huge crane while a number of volunteers took turns using an antique cross-cut saw. From there, the tree was wrapped tightly and fitted with a custom-made burlap “sock.” It was loaded onto an antique tractor-trailer, part of a 20-vehicle convoy that took a winding journey to Washington, D.C., stopping along the way at shopping malls to show off the tree, as well as to promote Vermont products. Other stops were made at veterans’ hospitals along the way to drop off smaller Christmas trees donated by growers in the state. Once in the nation’s capitol, stops included visits to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center to drop off more “companion” Christmas trees, before pulling up in front of Congress, where an ther crane lifted the giant tree into place.

A lighting ceremony was held in December with members of Congress and other dignitaries attending, and all eyes focused on a healthy balsam fir, likely not realizing the work that went into its move from the Green Mountains to The Mall in Washington, D.C. Each state that steps forward to provide the Capitol Christmas Tree is committing itself to providing what is essentially a gift to the country—a gift made possible by the generosity and hard work of businesses, residents, chambers of commerce and others, who came forward to donate their time, expertise and equipment.

“It was very touching to be part of the project,” says Wild. “You could just see the pride everyone took in this tree.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. He can be reached at pwhitevt@aol.com.