December Garden Dirt by Ray Greenstreet: Christmas Trees

While most of the year we are sharing our experience and expertise on garden plants, December brings people to garden centers for a very different reason: Christmas Trees. Of the 48.5 million Christmas trees purchased last year, over half were live or fresh cut. 98% of all live Christmas trees are grown on farms, keeping them renewable and environmentally friendly. There are many different types of conifers that can be used as Christmas trees, but fir trees are the most popular. Fraser firs in particular are popular in the eastern United States for several reasons including blunt needles, full branches, and good needle retention. Fraser firs are actually native to parts of Virginia, and into the Smoky Mountains. Other fir trees make good options too like Grand, Noble, and Nordmann/Turkish firs, but he most important factor in choosing a tree is that you like how they look and/or smell.

All fir trees have a pleasant fragrance, but Fraser, Noble, and Grand firs are particularly noted for their aroma. Turkish Firs are the exception here, and while they do produce a scent, it is mild compared to other live Christmas trees. Douglass firs are noted to have a more citrus-like scent than other Christmas trees.

Appearance is the biggest factor to contend with but, the decision can be a tough one. Before focusing on individual trees, try comparing the different tree species available. Scotch pines are sometimes available; the differences are easily visible. Douglas firs too are easy to distinguish by their narrow, pointy needles and crowded branching structure that makes them ideal for small, table-top trees. The other firs (true firs belonging to the genus Abies) can be quite similar to each other.

Turkish Firs often have the longest needles and waxiest appearance, with a distinct silvery underside. Their branches tend lay down more than the other species. They are the most popular Christmas trees in Europe.

Grand firs typically spread their needles in two rows, along the sides of the branch, leaving the top and bottom of the branch visible. This gives the trees a more delicate, feathery appearance. Their needles also have a lighter underside.

Noble firs have short needles that curve to point up, regardless of which part of the branch they are attached to, giving a very full rounded appearance to the branches. They also have sturdy branches that can support heavier ornaments, and a slightly more open structure that shows off the ornaments well.

Fraser firs also have short needles that tend to curve upwards like Noble firs on the upper branches, while laying in flat rows on lower branches. Other fir trees can have this change in needle arrangement from upper to lower branches to some extent. Like Turkish and Grand firs, their needles have a silvery under-side. Branches of Fraser firs curve gently upwards providing good support for ornaments.

Don’t feel like you need to remember all that to pick a good tree. These options are all available so you can choose what appeals to you.

Regardless of tree type, there are a few important care requirements. Every tree should get a fresh cut before you set it up in your home. Most shops will do this for you, but you might need to ask. A fresh cut makes sure resin, dirt, and bacteria aren’t clogging up the xylem that transports water up the tree. After getting it cut, make sure get the tree in water as soon as possible to prevent air bubbles (embolisms) from blocking the water flow up the trunk. Cut trees are still alive and are capable of fixing some embolisms, but its better to prevent them. Once the tree is set up, never let the water level drop below the cut surface of the tree or you will need to give the tree a new fresh cut. The exposed wood will gradually clog up again with resin and bacteria, but special water treatments like Prolong can extend the life of the cut tree. Off-brand products will work too. A few extra dollars can go a long way to make sure the needles stay up that extra week until the holiday festivities are over.

As a final note, if you have a new car and plan on putting the tree on top of your car to take it home, consider bringing an old blanket to protect your car.

Ray Greenstreet is president of Greenstreet Gardens, the premier garden center in Maryland and Virginia.