By The Gardening Guru
(feel free to print this out and pass on to your friends)
As the holidays approach, I am always asked “How do I pick the perfect Christmas tree?”. Since I have sold Christmas trees for over 15 years, I am the best person to ask. Let’s begin with some of the easy stuff to get past before we get into the different types of trees.
1). As every newscaster will tell you the Friday after Thanksgiving, check the tree for freshness. Run your hands lightly gripping the branch from the inside of the tree to the outside. You will have needles dropping, but there should not be a handful. You have to keep in mind that most Christmas trees, unless purchased at a cut-your-own farm, will have been cut in the beginning to middle of November. They are then kept in cold storage until delivery time to the garden center or corner lot. So when someone tells you that they were cut a week ago, don’t believe them unless it is the Friday after Thanksgiving. Also “bounce” the tree on the ground and see how many needles fall. There will be some, because even evergreens lose their older needles which are located towards the inside of the tree. A good example of this is the members of the pine family, such as white and scotch pine. A tree lot will spend a good deal of time bouncing these trees to remove the dead needles from the inside of the tree to help sell it quicker. No one likes a tree that is full of dead needles! Once you have determined that the tree is fresh, you can move onto the next step.
2). Tree types - Now you may be asking why we started with freshness instead of the type of tree. It is more important to get a fresh tree than a particular tree. Also, some trees do have the tendency to dry out quicker than others. Below is a listing of trees that are grown for Christmas trees, including pines, spruces and firs, including their best qualities and their drawbacks.
a). The Pines - Pines are the Christmas tree grower’s best plant; they grow rapidly, are ready for sale in a short period of time, and can grow in a wide range of climates and soil types. On the other hand, they do need a heavy annual shearing for them to attain that”Christmas Tree” look. With all of this shearing, the stem can be quite thick compared to the size of the tree, so check your tree stand for diameter size before purchasing. 1). Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra) - These trees make good “living” trees, or trees that come with a root ball. They can withstand the conditions inside and will do quite nicely outside in your landscape. Unlike most pines, the Austrian pine keeps its lower branches even after reaching a large size. 2). Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) - This pine has very short needles (1”), but tends to have a yellow tinge to the needles for the winter, so the tree only enjoys a limited popularity. 3). Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) - These trees were originally imported from Europe for fast reforestation of cut-over areas. It proved to be a disappointment because it tended to be short-lived and it grew crooked. Resourceful growers began shearing it as a Christmas tree, especially since it can grow in milder climates where spruces and firs will not. There is a wide variety of Scotch pines (French, Spanish and Greek) and they vary greatly. Most Scotch pines tend to yellow for the winter, and to compensate the growers will spray a colorant on these trees to make them look better, with limited success. Scotch pines also suffer from crooked stems, so always look at the bottom of the tree as well as the top on this type. With it being sheared, this tree is good for a “lights only” display as well as most pines. There are no real spaces for ornaments. 4). White pine (Pinus strobus) - This tree is very important to the lumber industry as well as the Christmas tree industry. It is mostly grown in the mid-Atlantic states, and buyers admire it for the soft green color and woodsy fragrance. Again it is a lights only tree.
b). The Firs - Firs are the most popular type of tree grown for Christmas. They have an attractive, deep green color and conical shape and have needles that are flatter and softer in texture. In general, they are the longest lasting tree in terms of needle retention and have the most fragrance, a citrus-orange scent. 1). Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) - This tree is grown in the colder climate where winters are cold and summers are cool. To many on the east coast, a balsam fir is the only Christmas tree. It is naturally cone shaped, needles that are rich green on top and silvery white underneath. Most only need three to four shearings before sale and are relatively quick growing. Of the firs, this is the mid-priced model. 2). Douglas fir (Psuedotsuga Menziessii) - It is not a true fir, but does resemble the fir family, especially with its citrus fragrance. In the Northwest, British Columbia and Rocky Mountains, this is the tree of choice. Douglas firs have a blue-green color, excellent needle retention, but be wary of split trunks. I have seen hundreds of Douglas firs that have a split trunk 1 foot from the bottom, which will only complicate the cutting for the stand. 3). Frasier fir (Abies fraseri) - They still don’t know whether this is a different species from the balsam fir of just a climatic variation. The needles are short and hug the stem and its growth habit is more dense than balsam. This is my personal favorite as well as the tree I have gotten for the past 15 years. 4) Noble fir (Abies procera) - This attractive tree only grows in the Northwest. This fir is the best with needle retention, but the problem arises that it is a slow grower, so not only will you pay more for this tree, but the trunk will be quite large.
c). The Spruces - Spruces have stiff square needles, rough bark, strong branches which make it perfect for heavy ornaments. On the other hand, it is often too prickly for children to decorate and can drop needles quite quickly. Spruces need to be watered frequently, and if you forget, the tree needs to have a new fresh cut on the trunk so it will be able to absorb water again. Definitely a heavy drinker of water, so get a large capacity tree stand. 1). Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) - Known for its landscape use as well as a Christmas tree, blue spruce are definitely and eye catching tree. They do not tolerate indoor conditions, so don’t bring it in until it is almost Christmas. 2). White Spruce (Picea glauca) - A nice tree for its green color, but again a heavy needle dropper when watering is not kept up.
There are many new varieties being grown today, and it is really up to your own personal choice. After selecting your tree, only give the tree a fresh cut just before you are going to bring it inside. Make sure you have a large enough stand for the tree. Sometimes it is better to have one to big than too small, for the larger one will hold more water and cut down your watering times. I have also heard to use aspirin, tree fresh and other assorted chemicals to help preserve the tree. The simple, most effective way to keep your tree fresh is to make sure to never let it run out of water...plain and simple. Good luck and have a safe and happy holiday season!