For Christmas trees there’s nothing like the smell of fir

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.



Our 2015 Balsam Fir Wilderness Christmas Tree

Our 2015 Balsam Fir Wilderness Christmas Tree

Close up of our natural decorations - Old Man's Beard, popcorn and cranberries

Close up of our natural decorations – Old Man’s Beard, reindeer moss, popcorn and cranberries


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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2 Responses to For Christmas trees there’s nothing like the smell of fir

  1. Loved this post– and definitely noticed the allusion to “New England Christmas”!

  2. joanneeddy says:

    Hi Ted, Our family also cut our own,and always balsam. I have gotten Frazier’s since coming here, but I think they aren’t quite as fragrant. I hope you and Roberta and your family had a wonderful Christmas! Jo

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