Randall B. Heiligmann
State Forestry Extension Specialist
Christina M. Milenovic
Extension Associate, 4-H Youth Development
Natural Resources, Horticulture and Crop Sciences
Each year more than a million Ohio families bring the beauty and fragrance of a real Christmas tree into their homes as part of their holiday celebration. In so doing, they are following a tradition that dates to before Christianity and one that is not exclusive to any single religion. During Winter Solstice, early humans used evergreen boughs or entire trees in magical rites intended to secure protection of their homes and the return of vegetation in the spring. Romans decorated their homes with evergreens to celebrate Saturnalia, a winter festival honoring Saturnus, their god of agriculture. During the Middle Ages, Christians in Germany used an evergreen hung with red apples in the December 24 Adam and Eve's Day play depicting the events in the Garden of Eden.
The oldest record of a cut Christmas tree decorated in today's tradition is reported in a travel diary from 1605, which describes a fir tree in Strasbourg, Germany, hung with paper roses, apples, wafers, and candies. Tradition suggests that the first Christmas trees in the United States were wooden pyramids covered with evergreen boughs decorated by children in a German Moravian church settlement at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day in 1747. From that beginning, the use of a real Christmas tree as part of the Christmas holiday celebration in the United States has grown until today more than 30 million real Christmas trees are purchased each year in the United States. And, although at one time all Christmas trees were naturally grown wild trees, almost all Christmas trees marketed today are grown in plantations where they are planted and intensively managed for six to 12 years specifically for harvest as Christmas trees.
During late November or early December each year Ohio families will select their Christmas tree at a tree lot or visit an Ohio Christmas tree farm to select and cut their own tree. No matter where or how the tree is obtained, the Christmas tree experience will be more enjoyable if the tree selected is the appropriate species, is the proper size, is clean and fresh, and is provided the proper care during the holiday season and disposed of in an effective manner once the holiday is over.
There is no "right" answer to the question, "So what species of Christmas tree should I buy?" The "right" Christmas tree is very much a matter of personal taste, and consumers need to spend some time learning which species they prefer. While all Christmas trees are needle-bearing evergreens, there is a great deal of variation among the species in overall appearance, needle and branch characteristics, keepability, availability, and price. There can also be considerable variation between trees of the same species, depending on where the trees were grown and how they were managed. A tightly sheared blue spruce will, for example, look very different than one that has been lightly sheared throughout its life.
For ease in identification, Christmas tree species can conveniently be divided into two groups - pines, such as Scotch and white pine, and the single-needle conifers, including the spruces and firs. While there are many differences between the two groups, the easiest way to tell them apart is by the way the needles are attached to the branches. All pines used as Christmas trees have their needles attached to branches in groups of two or more; all of the single-needle conifers have their needles individually attached to the branches. Other differences important to their use as Christmas trees include (1) pines generally have longer needles, (2) the branches of pines come off of the main stem at distinct intervals (termed whorls) while those of the single-needle conifers emerge all along the stem, and (3) pines grow on a wider variety of sites and have traditionally reached Christmas-tree size in fewer growing years. This latter characteristic undoubtedly has been responsible, at least in part, for pines historically being more popular among Christmas tree buyers - pines have been more available at a lower price. However, this trend appears to be changing in recent years, with the single-needle conifers capturing an increasing share of the market.
More than 90 percent of the Christmas trees marketed in Ohio are one of six species - Scotch pine, eastern white pine, blue spruce, Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, and Canaan fir. The characteristics of these six species are briefly described and illustrated here. A variety of other species may occasionally be encountered, including red pine, Austrian pine, white spruce, Black Hills spruce, Norway spruce, Serbian spruce, white fir, and balsam fir.
Scotch pine, an introduced species native to Europe and eastern Asia, historically has been the most popular Christmas tree grown and sold in Ohio and throughout the United States, though its popularity has waned some during the 90s. Its one- to three-inch-long, green to blue-green, somewhat stiff and twisted needles are attached to stiff branches in groups of two. Because a number of different varieties of Scotch pine are grown, considerable variation may be found in the Scotch pine sold as Christmas trees, particularly in needle length and color. Scotch pine is commonly sheared tightly to produce a tree with dense foliage, though trees with lighter shearing can be found. These trees have a more open appearance and more room for ornaments. Scotch pine has strong branches that will support abundant decorations and relatively heavy ornaments. The needle retention of cut Scotch pine is excellent, better than almost any other Christmas tree species. In fact, unlike most other Christmas tree species, Scotch pine tends to hold its needles even when the tree becomes very dry
Eastern white pine, a tree native to eastern North America, is the second most popular pine Christmas-tree species among Ohio consumers. Its two- to five-inch-long, yellow-green to blue-green, soft, flexible needles are attached to flexible branches in groups of five, giving the tree an almost delicate look when compared to many of the other pines, including Scotch. Two varieties of Eastern white pine with distinctly different appearances are commonly used for Christmas trees. Eastern white pine from northeastern U.S. seed sources (often referred to as Lake States seed sources) tend to have yellow-green to green needles that are somewhat shorter, while white pine from Southern Appalachian seed sources tend to have blue-green needles that are somewhat longer and have a drooping appearance. Like Scotch pine, eastern white pine is most commonly sheared fairly tightly, producing a tree with dense foliage, though more open trees can be found. Compared to Scotch pine, however, eastern white pine's slender flexible branches will support fewer and smaller decorations. Needle retention of cut eastern white pine is very good to excellent.
Eastern white pine
Blue spruce (Colorado spruce, Colorado blue spruce), a tree native to relatively high elevations in the mountains of the western United States, seems to be experiencing increasing popularity as both a cut Christmas tree and a living Christmas tree to be planted after the holiday. Its 3/4 to 1-1/4 inch-long, stiff, very sharply pointed needles are attached individually to twigs and grow on small peg-like structures that remain on the twig after the needles have fallen (usually after the third or fourth year), producing a somewhat rough or bumpy feeling twig. The almost square cross-section of the blue-spruce needle allows it to be easily rolled between two fingers. The foliage color of individual blue-spruce trees varies from green to blue-green to silvery-white. The naturally symmetrical form of blue spruce allows an attractively shaped Christmas tree to often be produced with a minimum of shearing, enabling growers to produce attractive trees with a variety of densities. Blue spruce branches are relatively stiff and will support many decorations and relatively heavy ornaments. Needle retention is good, though blue spruce will not tolerate a situation that allows the tree stand to occasionally go dry. If that happens, a great many needles drop. If blue spruce has a major drawback as a Christmas tree, it is its sharp, stiff needles that make it difficult to handle and may make it an inappropriate choice for homes with small children.
Fraser fir, a tree native to the high elevations of the southern Appalachian Mountains, is a fragrant, dark-green Christmas tree species whose popularity has increased dramatically in recent years. Fraser fir's one-half to one-inch-long flattened needles are attached individually to the twigs. However, unlike spruce, the needles of Fraser and other firs are attached directly to the twigs, rather than on peg-like structures as are the spruce. As a result, when the needles fall off a Fraser fir branch, the surface of the branch is smooth rather than rough or bumpy like the branch of a spruce. Also, the flattened Fraser fir needle will not easily roll between two fingers. The upper surface of Fraser fir needles is generally dark green with a visible groove down the center, while the lower surface is a lighter green with two silvery-white bands. The needles on the upper branches are somewhat pointed and tend to curl upward around the twigs in a U-shaped fashion, giving the branch a bottle-brush appearance, while the needles on the lower branches are more blunt and appear to extend out from the twigs from the sides, giving the lower branches a flattened appearance. Among Fraser fir's strong attributes as a Christmas tree are its strong natural symmetry, allowing the production of attractive trees with a wide range in density; its relatively strong branches to support decorations; and its attractive, deep green, relatively soft foliage. Also the needle retention of cut Fraser fir is excellent, and it is among the most aromatic of Christmas trees species, producing the balsam aroma commonly associated with the Christmas holiday.
Canaan Fir (pronounced kah-nane), grown from seed collected from fir stands in West Virginia and Virginia, is a relatively new Christmas tree variety that is rapidly gaining acceptance by both Christmas-tree growers and consumers. Growers have been particularly interested in Canaan fir because it will grow on many sites where Fraser fir and Douglas-fir will not. Presently, there is a great deal of variability among the Canaan fir being grown and marketed for Christmas trees. Some are indistinguishable from Canadian balsam fir; others are indistinguishable from Fraser fir. Many, however, can be distinguished from Fraser by noting that the Canaan fir generally have somewhat longer needles (one-half to one-and-one-quarter-inch or longer), are more blue-green on the upper needle surface and have less distinct silver bands on the lower needle surface, and generally have more upswept branches near the top of the tree. Buyers should normally rely on growers to identify Canaan fir and then seek the tree with the most desirable characteristics. Like Fraser fir, Canaan has attractive, relatively soft foliage; has relatively stiff branches; and is available in a wide range of densities. Canaan fir's needle retention appears to be good to very good, and it, too, produces the balsam aroma commonly associated with the Christmas holiday.
Douglas-fir, a tree species native to the mountains of the western United States, has been the major Christmas tree species in the western United States since early in this century and today is popular throughout the United States. Its three-quarter to one-and-one-quarter-inch-long, flattened, soft, green to blue-green needles are attached individually around the twig and tend to radiate out in all directions. Douglas-fir foliage can easily be distinguished from blue spruce by the softness of the Douglas-fir foliage and by the flatness of the Douglas-fir needle, which will not roll between two fingers. The Douglas-fir can be distinguished from Fraser fir and Canaan fir by noting that (1) Douglas-fir buds are bullet-shaped with a sharp point, while those of Fraser and Canaan are round or ball-shaped; (2) the leaf scars left when the needles of Fraser or Canaan fir drop from the twigs are essentially flat, resulting in a relatively smooth twig, while those on Douglas-fir are raised stubs, not as obvious as the peg-like structures present on spruce, but still visible and producing a somewhat bumpy twig; (3) the white banding on the back of the needles of Fraser and Canaan is more prominent than that on Douglas-fir; and (4) when the foliage of Fraser or Canaan fir is crushed, it has a balsamic or turpentine aroma while Douglas-fir has a very mild, almost sweet smell. Among Douglas-fir's attributes as a Christmas tree are its strong natural symmetry, allowing the production of attractive trees with a wide range in density; its relatively soft, attractive foliage; and its very good needle retention once cut.
The obvious answer to the question "How big a tree should I buy?" is to buy a tree that fits the space where it is to be set up. The key is to measure the height and width of the space where the tree is to be placed, and then measure - don't estimate - the tree to be purchased.
Trees in a choose-and-cut field or tree lot always look smaller than they are. The last thing one wants is to get the tree home and discover that the height or, worse yet, the width of the tree must be significantly reduced. Not only is this an unplanned and usually an unpleasant chore, particularly in the house, but more often than not such trimming dramatically reduces the tree's attractiveness. And don't assume that just because a tree is the right height, it will be the right width. While many growers shear Christmas trees to an average taper of 66 percent, individual trees can differ considerably from that average. And the shape of the tree you need may be quite different from the average.
A better question than "Should the tree I buy be perfect?" is "Must the tree I buy be perfect on all four sides?" For some, the answer to that question will always be yes. They want as perfect a tree as they can find, irrespective of where it is to be displayed. For others, the answer will depend on where the tree is displayed. If the tree is to be displayed so that all four sides are visible, perhaps in a living room in front of a large window, then all four sides should be as good as possible. On the other hand, if the tree is to be displayed against a wall, a tree with three good sides may look perfect. If it is to be displayed in a corner, a tree with two good sides may look perfect. Why is this important? Because generally, the more perfect a tree is, the more expensive it is. It makes little sense economically to pay for more quality than you can see or appreciate.
Clean trees are trees that, in addition to being free from any extraneous plant material such as vines and grass, have been shaken to remove the dead needles that are lodged in the foliage and branches. Christmas tree needles do not live forever. Each year a new batch of needles develops and the oldest needles on the tree die. Some species, such as the spruces, may have four- or five-years' growth of needles on the tree at any one time; other species, such as many of the pines, may have only one- or, at most, two-years' growth of needles on the tree at any one time. A freshly cut, unshaken Christmas tree may have literally thousands of needles hanging in its crown. These needles should be shaken from the tree with a tree shaker or they will end up in the carpet, the heating ducts, and practically everywhere else in the house.
A cut Christmas tree will last the entire holiday season without becoming excessively dry or dropping an excessive amount of needles provided it is fresh when purchased and it is given the proper care. Obviously, the most effective way to ensure a fresh tree is to visit a choose-and-cut plantation and cut the tree yourself. For many families this has become a holiday tradition, with the family devoting most or all of a day to choosing the "perfect" tree while enjoying the scenery and other activities provided by the grower.
For those selecting their Christmas tree at a retail lot, somewhat more care is needed to ensure that the tree selected is fresh. The most effective way for a buyer to evaluate the freshness of a cut Christmas tree is by how firmly the needles are attached to the branches. The easiest way to evaluate this is to lightly grasp a branch of the tree and gently pull the branch and needles through your hand. If the tree is fresh, very few needles will come off.
Another way to evaluate needle fastness is to shake or bounce the tree on the bottom of its trunk and observe needle drop. Again, if only a few green needles drop, the tree is probably fresh. When evaluating freshness, do not be concerned if excessive amounts of brown needles fall. Remember, these are the needles that the tree sheds each year. Just make sure the tree is shaken before it is taken into your home.
Other methods of assessing the freshness of a Christmas tree, including needle flexibility, tree color, aroma, and the relative dryness of the bottom of the trunk, are far more difficult to evaluate and can many times be very misleading.
The key to maintaining a fresh Christmas tree throughout the holiday season is giving the tree proper care from the time it is purchased until it is disposed of.
If possible, cover the tree with some type of tarp during transport to prevent it from drying out, particularly if it's going to be on top of your car. A plastic tree disposal bag, available from many growers and lots, works well for protecting bailed trees during the trip home.
If the tree is to be kept for several days before being set up in the house, place it out of the direct sun and wind, perhaps on the north or east side of the house, behind some shrubbery, under an overhang, or in an unheated enclosed porch or garage.
If the tree is to be stored more than a couple of days, it is advisable to place its trunk in water. If the tree has been cut within the last six to eight hours, it will not need to be recut; longer than that and it should be recut. Cut straight across the trunk (not at an angle) removing an inch or more from the bottom of the trunk. Be sure the container holds enough water and replenish it often enough that the water does not fall below the level of the trunk bottom. If it does, the trunk will begin to seal, and water absorption will be reduced or cease. When this occurs, a fresh cut must be made to remove the sap seal. Cut Christmas trees will absorb a surprising amount of water, particularly during the first week. A tree with a two-inch diameter trunk may initially use two quarts of water per day; one with a four-inch diameter trunk may use more than four quarts per day.
The lower the temperature and the higher the humidity, the longer a cut Christmas tree will last. If possible, turn down the temperature or close (at least partially) the heat vents in the room where the tree is located. If you have a humidifier, set it as high as feasible without causing condensation throughout the house. Some individuals who do not have whole-house humidifiers place a small portable humidifier in the room with the tree. Do not locate the tree near sources of heat such as a fireplace, an open heat duct, or a radiator, or in front of a window that receives the direct rays of the sun.
If the trunk has not been recut, recut it as described previously.
Consider using a tree disposal bag and place the bag around the base of the tree before it is put in the stand. A tree disposal bag is a large plastic bag that is pulled up over the entire tree at the end of the season to contain loose needles and branches as the tree is carried out of the house. To be effective, the tree bag must be placed around the base of the tree trunk before the tree is placed in the stand.
Place the tree in a stand that is large enough and strong enough to hold a tree of its size. Be sure that the tree stand will hold an adequate amount of water (most would suggest a one- gallon minimum; more for large trees) and that it is replenished on a daily basis. Water is important because it prevents the needles from drying out, becoming brittle, and dropping off; the branches from drooping and then becoming brittle; and it keeps the tree fragrant. Again, remember that the tree will absorb a large quantity of water, particularly during the first week, and it is essential that the water level in the stand never go below the cut end of the trunk or a seal of dried sap will form (in as little as four to six hours), preventing the tree from absorbing water. If this happens, a fresh cut will need to be made to remove the sap seal, a cut that is often not feasible with a fully decorated tree.
Use only approved and carefully inspected electrical lights and extension cords when decorating a Christmas tree. Do not leave a lighted Christmas tree unattended.
Take the tree down at the end of the season or when it has become too dry. A well-cared-for Christmas tree should normally remain fresh for the entire holiday season. Research has shown that fresh-cut Christmas trees of the species commonly sold in Ohio should last at least four weeks before drying to an unacceptable level. Some trees will last longer; others will dry out sooner. We have evaluated trees that were still acceptable after six weeks, and a few trees that took up very little water and began drying out immediately. Certainly a little judgment must be used in evaluating when to remove the tree.
After the holiday season, a Christmas tree can be disposed of in a variety of ways.
Many communities have curbside pick-up or drop-off locations for recycling or disposing of Christmas trees.
Christmas trees can be chipped and used for mulch or composted.
Christmas trees can be set up in your yard or garden as a shelter or feeder for birds or other wildlife. This is most commonly done by simply securing the tree in a standing position and hanging suet or other food in the foliage.
Christmas trees can be used as cover in fish ponds. See the Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet, Placing Artificial Fish Attractors in Ponds and Reservoirs.
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Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.
TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868