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.