Column: Christmas tree tips

Published 2:23 pm Thursday, November 29, 2007

By Staff
With Thanksgiving now under our belts (literally) the rush is on to get up the ol' Christmas tree. While many think plastic is fantastic, about 35 million of us here in the U.S. just can't abide by a fake Christmas tree. With this in mind, here are some tips on choosing and caring for a real tree. First realize it's a lot to ask of any tree to hold on a month or more after it's been cut down. A pre-cut tree for sale right after Thanksgiving may have been cut a week or two already and is well into the dieing process. Now we're asking it to hold up for another month or more yet. Some tree lots only get in one shipment. Others may get several shipments, presumably with fresher trees, but no one knows for sure how long a pre-cut tree has been hanging around. To test for freshness sharply bend a needle with your fingers. With spruce and fir trees a fresh, green needle will break crisply when bent. Pines are just the opposite, the pliable needles won't break unless badly dried out. Give the tree a shake. Some needle drop is expected but look for excessive shedding. Also check for discoloration and a musty odor.
Obviously, it's best to go to a tree farm and have them cut it for you right on the spot. What type of tree to choose is mostly personal preference. The most common Christmas trees are various species of three types, spruce, pine and fir. Very generally speaking, spruce species are dense with stiff, rectangular needles that are very sharp. The needles tend to fall off faster than many firs or pines. Firs are also quite dense and have flat, relatively soft needles that stay on the tree well. Pines tend to be more lanky and sparse. They have longer, pliable, soft needles that stay on the tree very well. Of course, pruning while growing greatly affects shape and density. Here are some traits of the more common species found here in the Upper Midwest.
Colorado blue spruce – Good natural symmetry with attractive, bluish color. Very sharp needles. Needle retention is the best of all spruces but not as good as some firs and pines.
Norway spruce (sometimes called red fir because of the reddish bark) – Short needles with some sharp and some more blunt. Poor needle retention so it must be cut fresh and kept watered to make it through the season.
Scotch pine – One of the most common Christmas trees. Stiff branches hold heavy ornaments. The one to three inch long needles are not sharp and have excellent retention. They don't fall off even when dried out.
White pine – Tends to be sparse and lanky. The thin, limber limbs may sag with heavy ornaments. The soft, pliable needles are up to five inches long and stay on very well.
Douglas fir – Another very common Christmas tree. The needles are soft to the touch and radiate out in all directions from the branch, providing exceptional density. It retains the needles quite well.
Fraser fir – Considered by many to be the Cadillac of the Christmas trees. The needles are not sharp and have a pleasing scent. The upcurving branches make it appear perky and dense. Needle retention is excellent. The similar balsam fir has most of the same attributes.
Noble fir – If the Fraser fir is the Cadillac of trees the noble fir is the Rolls Royce. It has long been prized as the all around finest of all Christmas trees. The silvery, bluish-green needles are not sharp and have excellent retention. The stiff branches hold heavy ornaments well.
Of course, no matter what the tree it's essential the base be kept in water at all times. Tap water is fine and additives aren't recommended. For best water absorption the base cut must be fresh. If too much time lapses from cutting to watering the tree seals the cut with sap. If this happens simply cut a half inch off the base to open the pores. Do not taper cut or peel a section of the base. A flat cut is best. Merry Christmas.