Using natural trees to celebrate Christmas is a tradition that started some 400 years ago in Europe, won over the Americas, and is gaining more and more ground in Brazilian territory. Even with the increased supply over the last few years, the metallurgical engineer Gilberto Sguario da Silva tells how, a short time after having returned from a long stay in the United States, he felt the lack of a product with a few characteristics that he was used to. “The trees from the Northern Hemisphere, besides being extremely pretty, give off a very agreeable aroma”, he describes.
This observation was the springboard for a study that has resulted in a tree adapted to the climatic conditions of the Southern Hemisphere, soft to the touch, with a sweet aroma, without any leaves loss, and its color and vigor preserved up to 45 days after the cut down. Using techniques of plant cloning, the research was carried out by the Tree Physiology Laboratory of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq), of the University of São Paulo, in partnership with Arboreto Produtos Florestais, in which Gilberto Silva holds a stake, with funding from FAPESP’s Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program.
The partnership with Esalq started in 1996, even before the PIPE project was approved in 1999, when Silva went to see Professor Antônio Natal Gonçalves. The first step was to select species of conifers suitable for the climatic conditions of the region where they were to be produced, in the south of the state of São Paulo, and with the qualities called for by the market trends. “We experimented with 12 species before starting the project”, says Gonçalves.
The choice fell on the elegans variety of Cryptomeria japonica, which is originally from Japan, for its ideal characteristics and qualities for cultivating as a Christmas tree: rapid growth both in vitro and in the field, its cone shape, which reduces the frequency of pruning to shape the tree, and a satisfactory response to fertilizers. Furthermore, this species, known as Japanese cedar, tolerates low temperatures, which is a prerequisite for being produced in Itararé, a town on the border of São Paulo with Paraná, the place chosen for it to be planted.
“The first step was to find genetic material suitable for cloning, which is a factor that has an influence on the quality of the trees”, says Gonçalves. Fragments were collected of the tips (the material found at the end of the branches) of selected trees from the Itatinga Experimental Station, of Esalq’s Forestry Sciences Department. New seedlings were produced from these trees, using the method of micropropagation (tissue culture). This method is regarded as the most appropriate one for the material to revert to the condition of reproducing, according to experiments carried out to generate eucalyptus clones, used by the major pulp and paper companies.
To recover the characteristics of reproduction by cloning, the tips have to be put in a culture medium with mineral nutrients, vitamins, growth regulators, sugar and agar, a substance extracted from seaweed, to give consistency. After 45 days, these explants s go to the nursery, and, some six months later, they will be ready to be planted or sent to a clonal garden, where new plants are produced by the staking method (the process of multiplying plants in which stakes with stems, roots and leaves are used). The spacing between trees for planting is around 2.20 meters. The time to reach the ideal height for felling varies from three to four years, according to the desired size: 1.5, 1.80, 2 and 2.5 meters.
The cut is carried out uniformly, close to the ground, so that the tree can be fitted into a metal support, developed by Gilberto Sguario da Silva, who founded Arboreto in partnership with his brother, the owner of the 75-hectare area in Itararé where the field tests are carried out. The support is made up of four screws that guarantee mechanical upholding and a recipient for nourishing the plant, where from 1 to 2 liters of water should be put every day.
According to Professor Gonçalves, the traditional felling, which also pulls up a clod of earth together with part of the roots, degrades the places where the trees are planted, because they take away large amounts of earth, causing erosion and impoverishing the soil. Finding a tree capable of resisting being cut was one of the great challenges for the project. “The American cedar, one of the rival species that are to be found on sale, cannot stand up to being felled without the clod of earth”, says Silva.
After felling, the branches are tied so as to facilitate transport to the places where the trees are distributed, which should always take place at night, to prevent the trees from losing humidity. The system for moistening the base of the trunk, developed by the company, consists of a damp sponge that is wrapped around the whole base of the trunk and is covered with a plastic bag. The tree, which comes with the support, is easily carried by hand, since it weighs no more than 5 kilos.
The program for marketing the trees was drawn up by Arboreto in partnership with consultants from the Brazilian Support Service to Small Business (Sebrae) of São Paulo. The program includes such details as how the trees should be stored in the company’s warehouse, care in transport, the best date for selling, and the places for publicizing them.
The first experience of selling them took place in 2001, in Alphaville, a district of the municipality of Barueri, in Greater São Paulo. The residents and businessmen from this closed condominium bought 200 trees. After registering the purchasers, in July 2002 Arboreto carried out a post-sales survey to assess the level of acceptance of the new product, compared with the competitors. The results delighted the company. “Of the residential customers, 100% were satisfied and intend to repeat their purchase this year”, says Silva. “This level fell to 70% with the commercial customers”. In his reckoning, they did not follow the instructions, given in writing, to water the tree daily. “This is the secret to keep the exuberance, the color and other characteristics preserved for 45 days”, Silva points out.
This year, the company brought about 500 trees to São Paulo, to be sold at a commercial outlet that they rented in Morumbi and at a florist’s located at the Cidade Jardim bridge, close to the Jockey Club. The retail price is estimated at between R$100 and R$160, depending on the size of the tree. “To start with, we want to sell in São Paulo and gauge the consumer’s reaction. Afterwards, we will go to Campinas, Curitiba and other cities”, Silva says. The estimate for sales for the coming year is in the region of one thousand trees, at the very least. “In two or three years, we will be selling 2,500, the maximum quota allowed for the land under the crop rotation system”, says the company’s owner-partner.
The studies and field tests so far carried out have shown that the chosen species, Cryptomeria japonica, meets the prerequisites proposed at the start of the project. In the current stage, the experiments are focused on improving the method for fertilizing, the time for pruning, and irrigation. In addition, two other species that have not yet been studied in the project are to be assessed: Pinus virginiana, which is originally in the United States, and Pinus eldarica, from Afghanistan.
They were chosen after consultation with the American association of Christmas tree producers, the National Christmas Tree Association, and following preliminary tests of propagation and behavior of these species in the field and in the laboratory. Tests will also be carried out on how the species survive felling, with the use of anti-transpirants and preservatives that can be diluted in water.
According to Professor Gonçalves, since the project began to be made public, Esalq has already received several queries from people interested in working with Christmas trees. But he points out that he has noted a change in the profile of the people who are turning to the university, located in Piracicaba. “We have received queries mainly from retired people who want to start a new activity in the countryside”.
Passing on technology to small and medium owners is one of the objectives of the project. At the same time that the experiments are carrying on at the laboratory and in the field, Gonçalves glimpses the possibility of the Itararé region turning into a center for the production of Christmas trees, with the technology developed by Esalq. “The investment is low and it brings a good return”, he reckons. The producer will be able to form plots to the same standard and classify the trees in accordance with their quality.
But the possibility is not ruled out of sales being handled on an individual basis, with the producers’ properties being opened up for the purchasers to chosse and book their tree while still in the field, as happens in the United States and Canada. For Gonçalves, even with the transfer of technology to other producers, Arboreto’s great advantage is that it set out first.
Development of Natural Christmas Trees for Brazil (nº 99/06186-0); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Antônio Natal Gonçalves – Esalq/Arboreto; Investment R$ 251,400.00 and US$ 8,853.30