You've survived another Thanksgiving dinner, the dishes are done and the relatives sent packing, but there's no rest for the weary. Now is the time to shift your focus from feast to foliage and join millions of other folks in that perennial search for the perfect Christmas tree. But is there such a thing as the perfect Christmas tree? Should you choose fir, spruce, or pine? And what about all the subspecies? After talking with tree aficionados and conducting my own census of the woods, one thing's clear—there are bum seeds in every Christmas tree lot.
But before you plunk down $30, $60—even $150—you should know a tree's reputation. How long before its needles drop? Before its color pales and its scent dies? How will it look decorated? How do you spot a stale, must-avoid tree? Should you buy from a lot, cut your own, or order over the Web? And last, should you buy the same old Scotch pine that you grew up with, or is the tree of your dreams something a little more exotic?
The top-selling Christmas trees are balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine, and white pine, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Blue spruce and Norway spruce also garner loyal followers. (See pictures of all these trees here.) About 98 percent of the $1.2 billion annual crop is cultivated like corn on some 15,000 Christmas tree farms. Although Christmas trees grow in all 50 states, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin harvest the most.
Tree types vary from region to region. But with improvements in cultivation and genetic engineering, in some cases, the ranges of these trees have expanded somewhat to give consumers greater choices of locally grown trees. That is, unless you live south of Disney World, as Russ Whited, a tree seller in Fort Myers who trucks in trees from the far-away Pacific Northwest, says, "You can't grow any decent trees in Florida. Down here we grow bushes."
It's impossible to discuss prices with much accuracy since they fluctuate by region too. Generally, choose-and-cut farms sell trees for a flat rate, ranging from $20-$60. Expect to pay $20 to $50 more for trees sold by the foot on retail lots, with prices topping out at $200 for premium trees in big urban areas. If you're lucky enough to live near an evergreen-rich National Forest, you can cut down a tree for a nominal fee. (In this article, the prices are for 6- to 7-foot trees.)
So, what's it to going to be?
Growing up in Iowa, I opened my presents under a Scotch pine. It ranks as perhaps the most popular Christmas tree nationally because it can be cultivated cheaply over a broad region. At Pleasant Valley Farms in Wisconsin, you can pick up a precut tree for just $16.
Though a bargain, the tree's popularity is starting to wane. For one thing, the Scotch isn't a beaut. For another, its bright green needles are 1- to 3-inches long and stingingly sharp. After weeks in the house, the dried needles turn even more aggressive. Please, don gloves before de-decorating, or this porcupine will leave you bloodied. (On the plus side, Scotch pine needles cling to the branches for several weeks, unlike some other evergreens.) Because pines tend to turn yellowish in the fall, farmers often spray them with a kelly green colorant to make them look more Christmassy. Inspect the needles on interior branches for telltale flecks of colorant.
The bushy density of pine trees also makes them hard to decorate: If tree farmers didn't prune and shear pines into a conical shape once or twice a year, they'd look as wild and woolly as Don King's hair!
The Cadillacs of the Lot Tree farmers may laugh at us behind our backs for our Christmas tree choices, but nobody laughs at purchasers of noble and Fraser firs. Folks love the way their open-branch structures show off all those ornaments from Mom. These trees smell great and retain their needles for weeks. You can't go wrong with either tree. One caveat: When these trees aren't pruned during cultivation, they can look sparse, especially toward the top.
The rarer of the two, noble firs, grow in the Pacific Northwest. They have soft, 1-inch needles, green with a hint of blue, and a sort of a peppery fragrance. When city folks visit Rusty Elliott's choose-and-cut farm north of Seattle, they ask for nobles by name. Outside their growing region, nobles bring top dollar. The noble that costs $60 retail in Oregon will command $150 in California, says tree-broker Sherry Lantz of E-Trees Inc. Because farmers underestimated the demand 10 years ago, there's now a shortage. If you want a noble in your living room, prepare to pay even more and consider buying the first one you see. That includes you, Northwesterners!
The elegant Fraser firs are native to the chilly, high elevations of the Appalachians, but today farmers in cool climates grow them too. North Carolinian Fred Wagoner says his Frasers bring $35-$45 retail in the Greensboro area. Fraser needles are soft, deep-green with silver undersides, a bit shorter than the nobles', and gently taper shorter toward the branch tips. Frasers also ship well, and with the high demand for them outside of conifer country, they rank as one of the Web's top-sellers.
Don't worry about buying a tree unseen. Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in New Hampshire selects the prettiest 300 Fraser and balsam firs for its mail-order and Web customers, who tend to be fussier than lot buyers. But the convenience will cost you. For instance, a Fraser fir from Rocks shipped to Seattle costs $80; a similar tree from the farm's choose-and-cut lot sells for half that. Shipping size restrictions mean you'll have to settle for a 6- to 7-footer. Last year, out of the 33 million trees sold, 330,000 were bought over the Web.
Besides needle length and sharpness, another way to tell pine from fir is to examine how the needles are attached to the branches. Pine needles grow in bundles of two to five held together at their base, like little needle bouquets, along the branch. Fir needles grow in single file rows up the twigs. (Spruce needles are similar to fir needles.)
Closer to Camrys
The other top-selling firs—the balsam, grand, and Douglas—share the characteristic soft needles with good staying power, deep green color of varying shades, and nice scent of their classier cousins. All three tend also to have slightly longer needles than the luxury firs.
The stalwart of the New England farms, the balsam fir looks like a slightly shaggy Fraser, but this tree's big selling point is its sinus-clearing fragrance. So strong, the boughs of trees are often used to scent aromatic, decorative pillows. The L.L. Bean catalog sells balsams for $75, plus shipping. If you trek to New Hampshire, you can cut one down for around $35.
Folks in Idaho and Montana like their native grand fir, with shiny, dark-green needles that jet out in two rows on each side of the branch and give off a citrusy scent when crushed. When pruned and sheared, as most of these less expensive firs are, it's a thick-foliaged tree.
The old reliable Douglas firs sparked the Christmas tree industry on the West Coast in the 1920s. They grow with weedlike tenacity in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, as well as in the cool Midwestern states and the Northeast. While not a true fir, the Doug fir has good needle retention, piney scent, and branches that sweep out in all directions. Californians buy these trees by the truckload, and this year a Pennsylvanian Doug fir beat out the competition to grace the White House's Blue Room for the Clintons' last Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The Clintons' tree will be cut, shipped, put up, and decorated in a matter of days, which brings us to the first law of Christmas tree buying: Avoid geriatric trees. The needles drop faster on old trees, the scent's weaker, and the color fades. When buying from a lot, ask when the trees were cut, since retail trees can be harvested as early as September and kept on ice. Since these early harvest trees won't hold their needles as long, you're better off buying one cut later in the season, say, early November. Test for freshness by giving the tree a good bump on the ground. If a pile of green needles drops, move on. Or grab a branch near the trunk and pull your hand toward you. A handful of needles indicates an old tree.
Spruced Up The bluish-green needles and long, splayed out arms give the blue spruce a formal, majestic look. Also called the Colorado blue spruce, this tree takes 10 years to reach a sellable height, compared with some pines and firs that can hit that mark in seven or eight. This means the blues can be pricey in many parts of the country. At Captain Jack's farm, a big operation in central Iowa, blues sell for $10 per foot, while the Fraser firs he brings in from Wisconsin sell for $7 per foot. This tree is heavy; you'll need a village to wrestle it into its stand.
The lovely Norway spruce, the tree of choice in Europe, cuts the most delicate profile of all the evergreens discussed in this article; tall and thin, with 1/2-inch, dark-green needles and pretty cinnamon-red branches. Tree-grower Rusty Elliott says its fragrance fills a warm room like "something cooking," and its razor-sharp needles keep her cats away from the ornaments. Big downside to spruces: They're even more prickly than the pines. So glove up! Make sure to have plenty of vacuum bags on hand, especially if you choose Norway, for all the needles that will surely drop.
Which Brings Us Back to Pines
If you live in the hot, flat areas of the South and want a locally grown tree, you'll probably buy a Virginia pine and pay in the neighborhood of $23. Like the Scotch, it has long (2 to 3 inches), bright-green, sharp-as-tacks needles that stay on the branches through Christmas. Bill Dixon of Big Bill's Christmas Trees in Texas says parents are to blame for narrowing a consumer's mind when it comes to holiday tree options, since most folks are going to buy "what Mama and Daddy bought."
The white pine is the friendly cousin of Virginia and Scotch. It has long needles, a broad growing range, and a low price tag (choose-and-cut farms often sell them for around $25), with a crucial difference: Its needles are feathery soft. Since it puts off almost no scent, it's a good choice for people with allergies. It's a light tree, perfect for the bachelor with weak upper body strength. The downside: Its branches are strong enough to hold up lights and bows here and there but too weak for heavy ornaments.
A fir or pine cut in mid- to late November can stay needle-thick and fragrant through the end of the first week in January. Spruces are an OK choice if a couple of weeks with a holiday tree is time enough. Remember the shape of a tightly sheared tree may look nice leaning against the snow fence, but its densely packed branches won't show off your investment in antique glass balls (which is exactly why I'm going with the Fraser this year).
When you bring your tree home, saw an inch off from the trunk, plop it butt-end into a bucket of water, and store it in an unheated room until you're ready to bring it in the house. Watch the water level closely, especially in the first six to eight hours because your thirsty tree can easily swallow a gallon in that time. After it's inside, be nice by keeping the stand's water reservoir full and the tree away from radiators, fireplaces, or sun-filled windows. When Christmastime's over your tree's not junk: Throw it out in the yard with suet and bread stuck in its branches. The birds will love the treat and the extra shelter from the winter winds. If yardless, then poor Tannenbaum, it's off to the chipper.