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Tree Talk: Picking the Right Christmas Tree

Live tree or cut? Spruce or pine? How can you tell if a tree will keep its needles? Arborist Ken Almstead gives you a quick course in finding the best Christmas tree.

Most of us who grew up with Christmas traditions fondly remember the excitement of buying a tree. As adults, many of us have experienced the disappointment of a tree that has shed its needles before Christmas or pricks the fingers of the children who love it.

There are 3 questions about Christmas trees that I’d like to help with:

  • Which kind of tree should I buy?
  • How can I tell if it’s fresh and healthy?
  • How do I care for it?     

What kind of tree?  

The first decision is whether to buy a cut tree (including one you cut yourself) or buy a living tree that you intend to replant. My advice—buy the cut tree. Buying a living tree has a lot of environmental appeal, but the truth is that it almost never lives. In our area, trees are dormant in December. Evergreens are at their lowest metabolic rate, expending the minimum energy necessary to keep their needles healthy. They actually create a sort of anti-freeze that allows them to endure low temperatures. When you bring one into your cozy home, it will respond to the new conditions and begin to expend energy on growth. Then, when it is returned outside, the switch back to winter will be devastating, as its winter coping system has been deactivated. The result is needle drop, and often death, as the tree struggles to make it to spring with its depleted energy reserves.

If I haven’t discouraged you from buying a live tree, then let me offer some advice. Have the planting hole ready before the ground freezes. Choose a sunny location that can accommodate the mature tree—some grow to a 40’ width. Spray the tree with an antidessicant to help it retain moisture in your dry home. Transition the tree from outdoors to indoors and back again. (A garage or porch is often a good intermediate temperature point.) Keep it indoors for as little time as possible—a couple of days at most. Keep it well watered, but not soggy. When you plant it, you can leave natural burlap and twine in place, but should remove any synthetics because they won’t decompose quickly.

As for cut trees, there are several types sold in our area – or are available to cut down in nearby tree farms. Although all are evergreens, they can be broadly divided into pines whose needles are long and attached to the branch in groups (Scotch and white pine typically) and single-needle conifers (spruces and firs).  Trees can have different appearances depending upon how much they are pruned or sheared as they grow. Here are a few of the most common.

Scotch pine has 1” to 3” green to blue-green, somewhat stiff and twisted needles attached to stiff branches in groups of two. Scotch pines are commonly sheared tightly to produce a tree with dense foliage. The trees usually have an airy appearance with lots of room for ornaments; they can even support heavy ones. They retain their needles well, typically keeping them when dry. They have little scent.

Eastern white pine is a delicate-looking, flexible tree with 2” - 5” long, yellow-green to blue-green needles. The slender branches can’t support heavy ornaments. They retain their needles well.

Blue spruces are popular both as cut and living trees. They have ¾”  to 1 ¼” stiff, very sharply pointed blue-green needles attached to bumpy twigs. This can be an “ouch” tree for children. They are strong, symmetrical trees able to support relatively heavy ornaments. Needle retention is good as long as they have constant water.  

Balsam firs are the ones that smell like Christmas . They have dark green ¾”  - 1 ½” needles. They’re sturdy and retain their needles well.

Fraser fir is a popular tree with ½” to 1” needles. The needles are dark green above and lighter green underneath. The trees have strong branches and relatively soft needles with good needle retention. The Fraser is also one of the most fragrant of Christmas trees.

Canaan firs have become popular in recent years. They are very similar to the Fraser firs, with slightly longer needles.

How can I tell if it’s fresh and healthy?

The best way to ensure a fresh tree is to choose and cut it yourself. If you go to a retail lot, you’ll need to exercise more care. Even healthy trees lose old needles. So, unless someone has given it a good shake, you can expect dead brown needles in the branches. However, if the branches seem to still be shedding green needles, the tree probably is going to continue shedding them in your home. Pick up the tree and thump it down on its base to see if the needles are falling off.

It’s not always necessary to have a perfectly symmetrical tree, but examine any bald patches for signs of blight. If the surrounding needles seem dryer than the rest, the tree will probably shed heavily when it gets into your warm room.

The branches should feel flexible and spring back if you gently bend them—if they snap, the tree is already brittle. You should be able to gently pull a branch through your hand without losing many needles.

How do I care for it?

Your Christmas tree is meant to live outdoors in the cold—not your living room. Try to find a cool spot for it, if possible—away from any heat source. Make sure it has plenty of water: a big cut tree can drink a gallon a day or more! Increase the humidity, if possible.

In order for it to more easily absorb water, recut the trunk at least one inch from the bottom before putting it into its base. Trees have a natural process of sealing over cut wood that can be delayed by immersion in water. When the water dries up, the tree starts to make the wood impenetrable, so make sure the stand is never empty. Even if your tree is stored outside, put it in a bucket of water.

All of us at Almstead wish you a happy and safe holiday. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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