Couple has raised Christmas trees for Obama, Reagan and Carter White Houses

Gloria and Eric Sundback now focus on breeding trees.
Gloria and Eric Sundback now focus on breeding trees. (Adrian Higgins/the Washington Post)

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, December 17, 2009

There are many remarkable aspects to the sweet life that Eric and Gloria Sundback have built together around the Christmas tree.

The Sundbacks have furnished live trees to generations of Washingtonians, lately the Obamas at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But before we get to that, I want to know how he prunes his trees. So Eric takes me to his snow-dusted field near Shepherdstown, W.Va., where he quietly circles an eight-foot Fraser fir with old but keenly sharp wooden-handled shears. Without warning he lunges at a stem and takes it clean off. It's all over in a blurry flash. If you've seen a stealthy heron strike at a fish, you've got the idea. I certainly wouldn't want to be in a duel with the guy, even if he is 82.

"You want 30 to 60 cuts to a tree, and you can do each in less than a second," he says.

But it's not just about the speed; it's the precision. When he prunes a tree, usually in midsummer for Fraser firs, he removes the entire terminal stem of selected branches to ensure that the tree keeps its tight pyramidal shape and that next year's growth continues in the same plane. Most Christmas tree farmers just cut randomly with a knife, inducing a more random branching habit.

The Sundbacks' attitude to pruning is emblematic of their whole approach to cultivating the perfect yuletide tree. The 18 1/2 -foot Douglas fir now in the Blue Room of the White House is the fourth of theirs chosen to decorate the executive mansion. The Reagans enjoyed two, the Carters one. In addition to the official big tree, the White House bought about 20 trees from the Sundbacks to decorate other rooms in the mansion. Ten of them were 12-footers.

The Sundbacks started growing Christmas trees more than 50 years ago as a young couple in northwestern Pennsylvania, but the lake-effect snow chased them south to Washington in 1959, where Eric worked for 16 years as a landscape architect in Silver Spring. They bought 160 acres in four parcels in West Virginia and started their farm in 1967 with 100 of their best trees from Pennsylvania. Eric was also a horticulturist and Gloria was schooled in forestry, so they realized the trees they were growing had failings as optimum Christmas trees. "Most of the research in trees was to produce a thrifty tree for timber," says Gloria. "The trunk is important to a Christmas tree, but it's not your total consideration."

Hence they began a 70,000-mile odyssey for the perfect Douglas fir, some 20 trips in the Rockies from Canada to the Mexico border, at first in an Oldsmobile and a pup tent. They knew that if they found a mother tree with desirable traits -- compact habit, dense branching, good color and stiff stems to hold ornaments -- the chances were good that the seed from the tree might share those attributes. A Douglas fir doesn't bear cones until it is about 30 years old, by which time it is 40 feet high, so collecting the cones was a challenge.

Eric initially shot them down with a .22-caliber rifle, "but that's only good for one at a time," he says. "So then we climbed them. I was 50 by then."

"It was a monkey and a squirrel act," says Gloria, now 83. "He climbed, and I collected everything he threw down."

Then they figured out they could get real squirrels to do the work for them. In late summer, the rodents drop the cones and gather them into a cache. The cones have to be collected with some stealth. "Squirrels are very smart," says Gloria. "When they hear you around their tree, they'll start chattering to each other and stop cutting. You have to go away."

The Sundbacks would give the squirrels corn to make up for their lost cones. This is the first time I have heard of humankind coming out on top in the eternal battle between gardener and squirrel.

Our intrepid cone-gatherers found the best Douglas fir stock in the high elevations of New Mexico, where arid conditions have produced wild stock adapted to drought. This in turn has produced offspring that will hang on to their needles in your living room.

The couple has also been to the mountains of North Carolina five times to collect seed of the Fraser fir, which grows there above 5,000 feet. Again, the search is for improved versions.

Back in West Virginia, the Sundbacks drive me to a 30-acre field a mile and a half from their home. Here dwells the now maturing progeny of their first seed collections in the Rockies. The Douglas firs are about 40 feet tall but only in recent years have begun to bear seed. Elsewhere, selections of the faster-maturing Fraser firs (10 to 12 years) have been raised as breeding stock.

The White House Christmas tree was raised from seed collected in New Mexico and set out in the production fields in 1996 as a three-year-old transplant.

The Sundbacks have wound down their production of Christmas trees. Former employees Dan Taylor and Brian Holley are growing them from the couple's improved genetic stock and selling them at the Sundbacks' original retail lots on the 6400 block of Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase and the 3900 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW.

For Eric and Gloria, the shift has been wholly to the breeding program, which involves the bizarre sight of them vacuuming the favored individuals of Fraser firs in April to collect pollen. Eric fetches a quart-size glass jar from the freezer, containing a gazillion grains of Abies fraseri, resembling talcum powder, but yellow. They all came from a tree known to the Sundbacks as No. 7. The grains will seed 60 trees, he says, a process achieved by attaching a canister of the pollen to a dry sprayer and directing its jet of air into a stand of receiving trees. This is done on the back of a tractor-pulled wagon in April, and the image of some ancient vernal tableau comes to mind, perhaps captured by Manet: "The Seeding of the Firs."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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