An annual Christmas tree expedition is a long-standing tradition for our family. Ever since our kids were little, we’d bundle up and head to a tree farm soon after Thanksgiving to find the perfect tree. Which usually meant the biggest tree. (There was a tree we had to anchor to the bay window with guy wire, a tree that took the door molding off as it was pulled through the front door, and a couple of other trees that were too big to ride home on the top of our car.)
These days, we still all head to the tree farm together, grandkids in tow, choosing trees for our home and for each of our now-grown kids’ homes. Our styles have changed a bit, but not entirely. One daughter still likes to see every single tree on the lot before she decides on one. Another is easily satisfied with almost any tree the right size (she’s not interested in wiring trees to her windows), and our son and other daughter have eagle eyes for spotting beauty (and problems) in prospective trees — so every selection is final approved by them. We know we’re going to spend a lot of time at the tree farm, so we always hope for nice weather (and bring hot cocoa)!
I’ve learned over the years (from experience) that not all Christmas trees are the same. Not by a long shot. In fact, there are over three dozen varieties of trees grown specifically for Christmas. And some trees suit our needs better than others.
It’s a good idea to think about your needs before heading to the Christmas tree farm. Here are some things to think about ahead of time:
• Do you have small children? You might want to choose a tree with softer needles rather than prickly ones. Come to think of it, some of us adults prefer a gentler tree needle, too!
• Is the room where you’ll keep the tree very dry? How long are you going to keep the tree up? Some trees are more resilient than others. Some need very diligent watering while others will be a little more forgiving.
• Do you have allergies? You might want to choose a tree that’s less aromatic.
• How big and heavy are your ornaments? Some branches are very flexible and will bend a great deal if you hang ornaments on them. You might do better with a tree that has firm branches.
• How many ornaments do you plan to put on your tree? Some people like a look that shows off the tree itself — with just some sparkling white lights, for example. Others (ahem) cover their tree with 40 years-worth of ornaments. If you have a lot of ornaments, you’ll want a tree with some room between the branches. Very dense trees look pretty but don’t leave much space for hanging ornaments. They also don’t allow for the ornaments to hang straight down. You might bring an unbreakable ornament with you to test on the tree you have in mind.
• How big is the space you have for your tree? One of our trees reached from the piano on one wall to the front door on the other. Fun, but not practical! Take measurements before you head out tree shopping. Allow for the size of your tree stand and topper. And bring the tape measurer with you.
• How big is your Christmas tree stand? You want the trunk of the tree to fit in the stand. Cutting away the diameter of the tree (guilty!) isn’t good for the tree, because that cambium layer helps the tree absorb water.
Whatever type of tree you choose, make sure it’s healthy. Some things to check:
• It shouldn’t be shedding needles. (A few are okay.) Gently pull your hand along a branch, towards you. If you wind up with a handful of needles, that’s not a good sign. A cut tree shouldn’t drop lots of needles when shaken or tapped on the ground.
• The trunk should be a little sticky. This means it’s fresh. (Wear gloves when cutting and carrying your tree.)
• The tree should be evenly green. Some trees have a pretty color variation, but for the most part you want the tree to be thoroughly green, with no fading or brown needles and branches. Peek into the middle of the tree and make sure the needles there aren’t too brown, too.
To help you choose the best tree for your home, here’s a rundown of some of the most popular Christmas trees and their attributes.
With a very aromatic, spicy evergreen scent, this is your classic Christmas tree. (In fact, the needles are often used in holiday sachets.) The Balsam Fir has a dark, rich green color with hints of silvery white. The needles are short, flat, shiny, and soft, about ¾ to 1 ½ inches long. The branches are flat, too, and not especially stiff — though they can hold ornaments as long as they’re not too heavy.
The tree is conical, dense, and relatively slender, making it a good choice for limited spaces. The Balsam Fir also holds its needles well. It’s often used for wreaths.
By the way, the Canaan Fir is a hybrid of the Balsam Fir and the Fraser Fir (see below). Like the Balsam, it has good needle retention.
Blue Spruce (Colorado Blue Spruce)
This tree is popular for its beautifully colored, dense, waxy, silvery blue/gray needles. The needles grow about 1 ½ inches long, and they’re a bit sharp.
The Blue Spruce is very full, with a rounded pyramid shape and strong branches, good for decorating. It also has excellent needle retention.
Concolor Fir (White Fir)
The Concolor Fir has flattened leaves with soft needles that are blue/gray green (similar to a Blue Spruce but softer). The inch-long, flattened needles curve outward and upward and give off a citrusy evergreen scent when crushed. (Some people who are allergic are bothered by this aroma.) This hardy tree has excellent needle retention.
The Concolor Fir doesn’t need quite as much water as some trees.
This very popular Christmas tree accounts for almost half of all the Christmas trees grown in the United States. It’s a portly tree, with compact branches and a pyramid shape. The needles are dark sage/blue green, flat, shiny, and soft, and they grow about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. The branches are soft, pliable and full. The needles give off a sweet aroma when crushed.
The Douglas Fir is a very dense tree, but it will drop its needles if it’s not well watered. You might want to avoid a pre-cut Douglas Fir, because it isn’t especially long lasting.
Eastern Red Cedar
This tree isn’t truly a cedar tree; it’s part of the juniper family. It has a reddish bark and a dense, conical form, with light but compact branches. The textured needles (which are a bit prickly) range from gray/green to dark green and even purple and bronze. They grow upward in feathery bunches.
The Eastern Red Cedar is aromatic, but it can dry out quickly, so it needs diligent watering.
Eastern White Pine
This tree’s long, thin, silver/green needles can reach 5 inches in length, and they’re soft, dense, and feathery. The branches are flexible, too. All of which means it’s a great tree for minimal decorating (say you’re using just little lights for a more natural look). It’s not very aromatic, which makes it good for those with allergies.
The Eastern White Pine has good needle retention and is often used in wreaths and garlands.
The Fraser Fir is very popular because it’s a full tree that’s easy to decorate. It has ¾- to 1-inch needles with shiny dark blue/green tops and silvery bottoms. The needles are soft, well defined, and pointed upward.
The branches are sturdy enough to hold heavy ornaments, with space between them that makes it easy to hang the ornaments, wind ribbons, etc. This tree also has excellent needle retention and compact form. To top it all off, it’s very aromatic.
This fir is called “Grand” because it can grow to 250 feet! It has shiny, soft needles that are 1 to 2 inches long, bright yellow/green and dark green with white stripes underneath. The foliage is thick, but the branches are soft and pliant, so it won’t readily hold heavy ornaments.
The Grand Fir is strongly scented (think spicy, orange/evergreen aroma).
This cypress tree is a pretty green color, with feathery, flat leaves. It grows in a pyramidical, upward shape.
The Leyland Cypress doesn’t produce sap, so it’s not aromatic, which is good for those with allergies.
The Noble Fir tends to be a symmetrical tree, with a pyramid shape.
Its dark, blue/green needles and cones grow upward and are dense. The branches are evenly spaced and strong, making it a good choice for holding ornaments. (It also isn’t too prickly.)
This tree has a strong evergreen fragrance, and it retains needles well. It’s often used for wreaths and garland.
The full, dense, firm branches of the dark green Norway Spruce are pretty but hard to handle and decorate because of its sharp needles.
It’s also not very hardy. This tree isn’t a good choice if you plan to keep your tree up for more than a week or so, because the needles are likely to fall beyond that time. If you choose a Norway Spruce, your best bet is to cut one yourself and then water it religiously. It has a medium evergreen fragrance.
Scots (Scotch) Pine
This is the National tree of Scotland and is a very widely sold Christmas tree in the United States. It grows in a conical shape and has stiff, strong branches that hold heavy ornaments well. The needles are multiple greens and they grow 1 ½ to 3 inches long. The tree holds its needles very well, but they are very sharp!
The Scots pine has a medium but long-lasting fragrance and great needle retention. The trunks are sometimes quirky (not always straight but charming). This is a good tree for buying as a live tree and planting outdoors later.
White Spruce (Canadian Spruce)
The White Spruce has excellent needle retention. Its short, blunt, stiff needles are about ¾ inches long and perfect for holding ornaments. Its color is blue/gray/white/green. It’s been called “skunk spruce” because the scent when the needles are crushed isn’t altogether pleasant!
What do you think? What kind of tree would be best for you? If you get to the Christmas tree farm and aren’t sure what kind of tree you’re looking at, be sure to ask the staff!
We’ve put together a handy little list of Christmas tree choices to help you once you get there. Just print it and tuck it in your pocket for reference! (Or access it — or this article — via your phone when you’re shopping.)
Let us know how it goes and if you have any other tips to share! And be sure to check out our other Christmas tree article, for more tips on choosing a tree as well as directions for keeping your tree healthy throughout the holiday season.
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5 Ways to give meaningful gifts
Recycling during the holidays — Don’t toss your commitment with all the wrappings!