I’m a fan of live Christmas trees. I know they’re messy and can only be used once, but artificial ones just can’t capture the same atmosphere. Finding just the right tree brings out the child in everyone.
It’s been years since I’ve had the total experience of wandering the forest edges to find that perfect specimen. These needled evergreens need good light for dense branching. Christmas tree farms further accomplish the feat by regular pruning. Wild trees have that special romantic appeal, but they’re never as thick and uniform.
Numerous species can make attractive trees. When I was a kid we always used balsam fir, mostly because it was one of the most prevalent species in Maine. I knew several people who made a decent living harvesting wild trees and shipping them all over New England.
In North Carolina the Fraser fir is king of the Christmas trees. Most are somewhat silvery blue while balsams are darker green. Otherwise the two species are similar but their natural ranges don’t overlap.
These fragrant firs are adapted to different growing conditions. Frasers grow well at higher elevations on drier sites. Balsams tolerate wet soils much better, but won’t thrive this far south. Over the years I’ve dug many seedlings in Maine and brought them back here. I’ve kept many of them alive, but none have thrived.
Numerous species are used for Christmas trees but as far as I’m concerned no eastern species can match the qualities of these two firs. Both have great needle retention and aroma. Many different pines and spruces sometimes find their way into our living rooms too.
Blue spruce is a popular species often dug and their root balls wrapped in burlap. These trees should be planted outside as soon as possible after the holidays. They make a great landscaping tree, but they don’t grow especially well in the coastal plain.
I remember one of our neighbors chastising someone else for using a white spruce as a Christmas tree. This species is very common in Maine and usually has an attractive shape. Its odor is far from pleasant. Another name for the tree is cat spruce, and the odor is nearly identical. I’d never want one of them in my home.
Black spruce was a favorite of one my dad’s friends. I think he sought this one out largely to be different. These swamp dwelling spruces don’t smell like cat urine, but the needles are very short and don’t hold as long as balsam or Fraser fir.
Douglas fir and Scots pine are two other commonly used species grown for Christmas trees. Scots pine once was the leading plantation grown tree, but Fraser fir has now surpassed it. Douglas fir is more popular out west and it really isn’t a true fir anyway. Its genus name is Pseudotsuga, which means ‘false hemlock’.
I’ve even seen people use white pine or red cedar as Christmas trees. My wife’s family always cut a white pine. They had little choice. White pine was the only needled evergreen available. If you live out in the sticks you use what you’ve got.
Regardless of species, I prefer any live tree to artificial. Still, there’s nothing like the smell of fir. You can’t say the same for cat spruce.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).