Selecting a Tree

Christmas trees purchased from local Christmas tree farms are as fresh as a
Christmas tree can ever be.

EVALUATE YOUR NEEDS BEFORE DEPARTING FOR THE FARM

Measure the ceiling height in the room where the tree will be displayed. The trees in the field look small when the sky is the ceiling. Don’t overbuy. Measure the width of the area of the room where the tree will be displayed. Most trees on tree farms are trimmed to an 80% taper. So a tree that’s 10′ tall will be 8′ wide at the bottom. A tree that will fit in the room vertically may be entirely too big horizontally. What decorating theme will be used? Some species have more open foliage, stiffer branches or longer needles. Research the characteristics of the different species on the NCTA website, www.realchristmastrees.org, then find a farm near you that has the species you are looking for.

WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT THE FARM

Most tree farms keep their fields very well groomed, but there are some things that are beyond the farmer’s control. Be careful of ground hog holes, tree stumps, an occasional blackberry vine, uneven ground and sharp saws. Go to the farm prepared for a day in the country. Wear comfortable shoes and old clothes. Bring rain or snow gear if the weather is threatening. The “cutter downers” and the “loader uppers” should also have gloves. DON’T FORGET THE CAMERA. It’s best to leave “Rover” at home (many farms will prohibit pets). But, if a pet is allowed and must come along; keep him on a leash at all times. Please don’t let him “mark” other people’s trees. Saws are usually provided by the farm operator. Check ahead of time.

Some farms measure and price their trees individually, others sell them by the foot. Ask about the pricing policy before heading out in the field. Head out to the field and select the tree that fits your predetermined needs. Check the trunk to be sure that it is sufficiently straight. Keep in mind that pines will usually have, at least, some crook in their trunks. Also check that the tree has a sufficiently long handle to accommodate your stand. In the fall of the year ALL conifers drop, or shed, a certain portion of their oldest needles. This is a normal part of the life cycle of the tree. This phenomena occurs because the tree is preparing itself for winter. Most farms provide shaking, or blowing, services so that you will depart with a perfectly clean tree.

Cutting the tree is easiest as a two person project. The “cutter downer” usually lies on the ground. While the helper holds the bottom limbs up. While the cut is being made, the helper should tug on the tree lightly to ensure that the saw kerf remains open and the saw does not bind. The tugging force should be applied to the side of the tree opposite the cut.  A back cut should be made first with the final cut coming from the opposite side. Bring the tree to the processing area where it will be cleaned and netted. Netting makes transporting and handling the tree substantially easier.

Now you’re ready to load up and head home to decorate your Real Christmas Tree.

TREE TYPES

Trees we are currently growing:

Balsam FirBalsam Fir
Abies balsamea (L.) Miller

Description:
First described in 1768, balsam fir is a medium-sized tree generally reaching 40-60 feet in height and 1-1 1/2 feet in diameter. It exhibits a relatively dense, dark-green, pyramidal crown with a slender spire-like tip. The scientific name “balsamea” is an ancient word for the balsam tree, so named because of the many resinous blisters found in the bark. Balsam fir and Fraser fir have many similar characteristics, although geographic ranges of the two species do not overlap.

On lower branches needles generally occur as two-ranked (two rows along sides of the branch), 3/4 – 1 1/2 inches long, spreading and not crowded. On older branches, the needles tend to be shorter and curved upward so as to cover the upper sides of the twigs. Individual needles are somewhat flat and may be blunt or notched at the end. Needles have a broad circular base and are usually dark green on the upper surface, lighter on the lower surface. Two silvery bands of stomata (pores) are found on the lower surface.

Balsam fir has both male and female flowers (or strobili) on the same tree. Flowers are receptive in late May to early June. The species is wind pollinated, and cones mature in a single season. At maturity, cones are 2 to 3 1/2 inches long with bracts shorter than scales. The presence of these short cone bracts is a distinguishing feature when balsam fir is compared Fraser fir. Upon ripening in September to November, cones fall apart leaving an erect central core.

Balsam fir bark is thin, ash-gray, and smooth except for numerous blisters on young trees. These blisters contain a sticky, fragrant, liquid resin. Thus, the species has been sometimes referred to as “blister pine”. Upon maturity, bark may become up to 1/2 inch thick, red-brown and broken into thin scales.

The species thrives in cooler climates and demands abundant soil moisture and a humid atmosphere. It is generally found in the Canadian and Hudsonian zones from sea level to about 5,000 feet in elevation. Growth is best on well-drained, sandy loam soils that are somewhat acid. The species is tolerant of shade and may reach 150-200 years of age. Pure stands may be found in swamps, but balsam fir often occurs with white spruce, black spruce and aspen on upland sites.

Chief enemies are the spruce budworm and balsam woolly adelgid (formerly called an aphid), heart-rot fungi, and fire. A shallow root system also renders the trees vulnerable to high winds and heavy spring snow storms.

As a Christmas tree, balsam fir has several desirable properties. It has a dark-green appearance, long-lasting needles, and attractive form. It also retains its pleasing fragrance. Nine to ten years in the field are required to produce a 6-7 foot tree.

Uses:
The wood is soft and brittle and has been used primarily for pulpwood. The wood is also used for light frame construction, interior knotty paneling, and crates. Wood resin in the bark blisters is the source of Canada balsam used for making of microscope slides. Resin was sold in stores as a confection prior to the advent of chewing gum, and resinous fir knots were once used as torches. A balm of balsam fir resin was used in Civil War as an external application to the injuries of combat. Balsam fir boughs are often used for stuffing “pine pillows”, with the aromatic foliage serving as a deodorant.

Moose and whitetail deer browse the foliage, while chickadees, nutcrackers, squirrels and porcupines eat the seeds. The spruce grouse uses fir forests for cover and obtains food from the needles.

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University

 

 

White FirWhite Fir
Abies concolor (Gord. and Glend.) Hildebr.

Description:
White fir, also commonly called concolor fir, is native to the western United States and may reach sizes of 130-150 ft. in height and 3 to 4 ft. in diameter. The oldest white firs may occasionally reach 350 years of age. It produces a spire-like crown with a straight trunk.

On older trees, the lower one-half to one-third of the crown is often free of branches.

Leaves (needles) are small and narrow and occur in rows. On upper branches, needles tend to be thicker and more curved than those on lower branches. Needles are usually 1/2 to 1 1/2 inch long, pointed or notched at the tip, bluish-green when young turning dull green with age. Typically, they are flat, without stalks.

The bark on younger trees is thin, smooth, gray with numerous resin-bearing pockets. Older bark is thicker, reddish-brown to light gray and broken into irregular, flattened scales.

Both male and female flowers (strobili) are found on the same tree. Pollination occurs in the spring and cones mature in one season. Cones are barrel-shaped, about 3 to 6 inches long, and mature in early fall. Cones are upright and generally disintegrate after seeds are shed. Good seed crops occur at 2- to 4-year intervals.

White fir is tolerant of a considerable amount of shade. Its best growth is on moist loamy soils, but may often be found on dry, thin soils. The species seldom occurs in pure stands but grows in association with numerous other species depending on location and elevation. White fir is commonly found with Douglas-fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, and red fir.

White fir is severely damaged by mistletoe. Leaves of white fir are often attacked by spruce budworm and Douglas-fir tussock moth. Bark beetles may also be a serious problem in some areas.

As a Christmas tree, white fir has good foliage color, a pleasing natural shape and aroma, and good needle retention.

 

Fraser FirFraser Fir
Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poir.

Description:
In many respects, Fraser fir and balsam fir are quite similar, although the geographic ranges of the two species do not overlap. Some scientists even suggest that because of the many similarities, the two species were once a single species which has since evolved into the present-day forms.

Fraser fir was named for John Fraser (1750-1811), a Scot botanist who explored the southern Appalachian Mountains in the late 18th century. The species is sometimes called Southern balsam or Southern balsam fir. Locally Fraser fir is known as “She balsam” because of the resin filled blisters on the tree’s trunk. Red spruce, often associated with Fraser fir, is called “He balsam” and lacks the distinctive blisters.

Fraser fir is a uniformly pyramid-shaped tree which reaches a maximum height of about 80 feet and a diameter of 1-1.5 feet. Strong branches are turned slightly upward which gives the tree a compact appearance.

Leaves (needles) are flattened, dark-green with a medial groove on the upper side and two broad silvery-white bands on the lower surface. These bands consist of several rows of stomata (pores). Leaves are 1/2 to one inch long, have a broad circular base, and are usually dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the lower surface. On lower branches, leaves are two-ranked (occurring in two opposite rows). On upper twigs, leaves tend to curl upward forming a more “U-shaped” appearance.

Fraser fir is monecious meaning that both male and female flowers (strobili) occur on the same tree. Flowers are receptive in May to June depending on elevation and other environmental conditions. The species is wind pollinated, and cones mature in a single season. At maturity, cones are 2-2 1/2 inches long with bracts longer than the scales and appearing reflexed (bent over). The presence of these visible cone bracts is a distinguishing feature of Fraser fir as compared to balsam fir. Upon ripening in September to November, cones fall apart leaving an erect central core. Red squirrels are the primary consumers of seeds.

Bark is usually gray or gray-brown, thin, smooth with numerous resin blisters on young trees. As trees become older, the bark tends to develop into thin, papery scales.

Fraser fir is intermediate in shade tolerance and is usually found on fertile, rocky to sandy soils which are acidic. Natural associates are red spruce, beech and yellow birch. Rhododendrons also are found in this ecosystem, and add significant beauty during their flowering season.

The most damaging natural enemy is the balsam woolly adelgid (formerly called an aphid) which is an imported, wingless insect. Phytophthora root disease attacks Fraser fir, but is most harmful at lower elevations. Some scientists also point to air pollution as a contributor to the decline of many natural red spruce-Fraser fir stands.

The combination of form, needle retention, dark blue-green color, pleasant scent and excellent shipping characteristics has led to Fraser fir being a most popular Christmas tree species. North Carolina produces the majority of Fraser fir Christmas trees. It requires from 7 to 10 years in the field to produce a 6-7 feet tree.

 

Colorado Blue SpruceColorado Blue Spruce
Picea pungens Engelm.

Description:
Colorado blue spruce, or blue spruce, is an attractive tree often used for Christmas trees or as ornamentals, particularly in the eastern United States and Europe. It is the official state tree of both Colorado and Utah. The species generally reaches a height of 65-115 feet at maturity with a diameter of 2-3 feet. It has a narrow, pyramidal shape and cone-shaped crown. As trees become older, they often take on a more irregular appearance. While blue spruce grows relatively slowly, it is long-lived and may reach ages of 600-800 years.

Leaves (needles) are 1-1 1/2 inches long on lower branches but somewhat shorter on upper branches. They are 4-sided and have a very sharp point on the end. It is this point which gives the species its name “pungens”, from the Latin word for sharp as in puncture wound. Needles are generally dull bluish-gray to silvery blue and emit a resinous odor when crushed. Some trees have a more distinct bluish-white or silvery-white foliage. The cultivated variety ‘glauca’ is noted for this type of coloration. Nursery managers also select for “shiners” which demonstrate this very desirable characteristic. Needles occur on small peg-like structures on the twig called sterigmata. The sterigmata persist on the twigs after needles have fallen, which is usually after the third or fourth year.

Both male and female flowers (strobili) occur in the same tree, although in different locations. Pollination occurs in late spring and cones mature in one season. In the fall, cones are 2-4 inches long and turn chestnut brown with stiff, flattened scales. Cones generally persist on the tree for one to two years after seed fall.

The bark is thin becoming moderately thick with age. It is somewhat pale gray in small flattened scales when young, then turns reddish brown and furrowed with age.

Blue spruce is moderately shade tolerant and grows best in deep, rich, gravely soils, often along stream banks and other sites with high moisture levels. It usually does not occur in large stands but is found in small groves or in association with Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce or ponderosa pine. A deep penetrating root system makes the species resistant to being blown over.

Major pests include the western spruce dwarf mistletoe, spruce bark beetle, and spruce budworm. Trees infected with mistletoe typically develop abnormal masses of branches called “witches brooms”. With severe infestations, trees may be killed.

Blue spruce is finding increasing popularity as a Christmas tree as a result of its symmetrical form and attractive blue foliage. The species has an excellent natural shape and requires little shearing. Additionally, needle retention is among the best for the spruces. Its popularity as an ornamental leads many consumers to use blue spruce as a living Christmas tree, to be planted after the holiday season.

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University

 

White Spruce

White Spruce
Picea glauca (Moench) Voss

Description:
White spruce is a medium-sized conifer found in northeastern United States and throughout Canada. It is the state tree of South Dakota. White spruce has a cone-shaped crown, and when grown in the open develops a conical crown which extends nearly to the ground. This habit along with the spreading branches give it a nice appearance for use as an ornamental. Trees often reach 80-140 feet in height and 1.5 to 3 feet in diameter. The oldest white spruce may reach 300 years of age.

v Leaves (needles) are needle-shaped, and are often somewhat crowded on the upper half of the branchlets. Needles are usually 1/2 to 3/4 inch long, blunt at the tip and green to bluish-green in color. Typically, needles are 4 angled (4-sided) and are present on short twig-like structures on the stem (sterigmata). When crushed, needles have a disagreeable odor, thus, the common name of “skunk spruce” or “cat spruce” is often used by those familiar with the species. The bark is thin, light grayish-brown and is produced in irregular, thin, scaly plates.

The species is monecious, meaning both male and female flowers (strobili) are found on the same tree. Pollination occurs in the spring and cones mature in one season. Cones are slender about 1 1/4 to 2 inches long and ripen in early fall. Cones are pale brown at maturity with scales that are thin, flexible, and rounded. Cones usually fall from the tree shortly after seeds are shed.

White spruce is tolerant of a considerable amount of shade. Its best growth is on moist, acidic, loamy soils and is often found on stream banks, lake shores and adjacent slopes. The species seldom occurs in pure stands but grows in association with balsam fir, black spruce, eastern hemlock, trembling aspen, and other northern hardwoods.

Leaves of white spruce are often infected by rust diseases resulting in premature shedding of needles. The two most important insect pests are spruce budworm and spruce sawfly.

As a Christmas tree, white spruce has excellent foliage color, short stiff needles and a good natural shape. Needle retention is better than some of other spruce species.

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University

 

Eastern White PineEastern White Pine
Pinus strobus L.

Description:
Beginning with the British colonists, eastern white pine (or white pine) has proven to be one of the most important and most desirable species of North America. It is a truly magnificent tree attaining a height of 80 feet or more at maturity with a diameter of two to three feet. White pine is considered to be the largest pine in the United States. In colonial times, white pines above 24 inches in diameter were reserved for England to be used as ships masts. These trees were identified by blazing a broad arrow on the trunk. Because of the colonists general dislike of British rule, this “broad arrow” policy was one more source of friction between the two. Until about 1890, white pine was considered the species of choice for most commercial uses. It is the state tree of Maine and Michigan.

Leaves (needles) are soft, flexible and bluish-green to silver green in color and are regularly arranged in bundles of five. Needles are 2 1/2-5 inches long and are usually shed at the end of the second growing season. Both male and female flowers (strobili) occur on the same tree, with pollination occurring in spring. Cones are 4-8 inches in length, usually slightly curved and mature at the end of the second season. Cone scales are rather thin and never have prickles. Cones also have exudations of a fragrant gummy resin.

Bark on young trunks and branches is smooth and tends to be greenish-brown in color. On older trunks, the bark becomes dark gray and shallowly fissured. Limbs tend to persist, particularly on trees grown without severe competition.

White pine is intermediate in shade tolerance and is commonly associated with eastern hemlock and various northern hardwoods. It is found on many different sites including dry rocky ridges and wet sphagnum bogs, but best development is on moist sandy loam soils. Extensive logging has destroyed most of the original pine forests, but the species is aggressive in reproducing itself and may be found throughout its original range. Due to its desirability and relative ease of nursery production it has also been a major species for reforestation in the northeastern United States and Canada.

White pine is susceptible to white pine blister rust disease, which has alternate hosts of wild currants and gooseberries ( Ribes ). White pine weevil is the major insect pest, and one which deforms trees by killing the terminal shoots. White pine appears to be more sensitive to pollutants such as, ozone, fluorides and sulfur dioxide than are other species.

For Christmas trees, sheared trees are preferred, although some people feel shearing results in trees too dense for larger ornaments. Needle retention is good to excellent. White pine has very little aroma, but, conversely, is reported to result in fewer allergic reactions than do some of the more aromatic species. To produce a 6-foot tree requires 6-8 years on good sites.

Prepared by Dr. Craig R. McKinley, North Carolina State University

How to Care for Your Farm-Grown Fresh Christmas Tree

When a Christmas tree is cut, over half of its weight is water. With proper care, you can maintain the quality of your displayed trees. Below are a number of tips relating to the care of displayed trees:

Displaying trees in water in a traditional reservoir type stand is the most effective way of maintaining their freshness and minimizing needle loss problems. Make a fresh cut to remove about a 1/2-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don’t cut the trunk at an angle, or into a v-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree. Once home, place the tree in water as soon as possible. Most species can go 6 to 8 hours after cutting the trunk and still take up water. Don’t bruise the cut surface or get it dirty. If needed, trees can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location. Place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket that is kept full of water. To display the trees indoors, use a stand with an adequate water holding capacity for the tree. As a general rule, stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. Devices are available that help maintain a constant water level in the stand. Use a stand that fits your tree. Avoid whittling the sides of the trunk down to fit a stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed. Keep displayed trees away from sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents, direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day. The temperature of the water used to fill the stand is not important and does not affect water uptake.

  • Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree. With many stands, there can still be water in the stand even though the base of the tree is no longer submerged in water. Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does not improve water uptake.
  • Use of lights that produce low heat, such as miniature lights, will reduce drying of the tree.
  • Always inspect light sets prior to placing them on the tree. If worn, replace with a new set.
  • Do not overload electrical circuits.
  • Always turn off the tree lights when leaving the house or when going to bed.
  • Monitor the tree for freshness. After Christmas or if the tree is dry, remove it from the house.
  • Go to www.realchristmastrees.org and type in your ZIP code to find a recycling program near you.
  • Never burn any part of a Christmas tree in a wood stove or fireplace.

Prepared by Dr. Gary Chastagner and Dr. Eric Hinesley Edited by the Scientific Research Committee of the National Christmas Tree Association