CHOOSING AND CARE OF CHRISTMAS TREES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (www.realchristmastrees.org), 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year. Of those with real trees, about three out of four bought them at retail outlets, the others cut their own at a tree farm—a trend that has been increasing in recent years. If you get a tree either way this year, follow a few tips in choosing and care for longest life and safety inside. You may have a choice of several tree species.
Spruce trees have single needles one-third to one inch long,
attached to the twigs by peg-like projections. The needle is
four-sided. (You can feel the sides by rolling it in your
fingers.) Spruce are generally prickly when rubbing the needles,
and so for this reason are not a first choice of many tree
shoppers. You may see Norway, Colorado, or white spruce.
The balsam fir also has single needles, but they aren't quite as
prickly, nor can you roll the needles in your fingers as with
spruces. Their dark green needles are flat, and longer than those
of the spruce-- about three-fourths to one and one-half inches
long. Balsam fir is one of the most common and favored choices in
Many growers consider an even better choice than the balsam fir
to be the Fraser fir. It is very similar, having a pleasant
scent, but branches are a bit more sturdy (better for heavy
ornaments), and turn slightly upward. It grows naturally at
higher elevations of the Appalachian mountains. You may find
another good choice-- the Canaan fir—which shares the traits of
both Fraser and balsam firs, but may be best considered as a type
of balsam fir.
Another species, the Douglas fir, has flat needles of similar length to those of the balsam fir. The buds are pointed on the Douglas fir, but rounded on the balsam fir. It is a popular choice in western states.
Most pines have two to five needles bound together at the base by
a sheath. The needles are about two to five inches long. White
pines often don't hold their needles as long indoors as some other
species, while Scotch Pine is one of the more common choices,
especially in the South and the Midwest. Depending on region of
North America, you may find other choices such as eastern red
cedar, Black Hills spruce, Ponderosa pine, concolor (white) fir,
noble fir, and Korean fir.
Before you even leave home, measure the space your tree will
occupy—both height and width. Then take a tape measure with you.
Trees always seem to look smaller in the great outdoors than
when we get them into our homes! This simple step can save money
buying a tree too large, and extra cutting once the tree is
Also, before leaving home pack a blanket or tarp to wrap the tree
if you can’t fit it inside your vehicle, as well as enough rope to
tie securely to your vehicle. Some tree farms have netting
sleeves to slip your trees into, as well as twine. A pair of work
gloves is useful, especially if you’ll be cutting your own, as is
a hand saw (many tree farms will provide saws).
Those choosing to “cut their own tree” at a tree plantation may
save money, as these growers often ask a fixed price for any
tree. Sometimes a sleigh ride or coffee and doughnuts at a
warming hut are available. Some firms allow you to tag your tree
early to cut just before the holidays. Good buys also can be
found at retail outlets, though prices are usually higher as
someone else has provided the labor and transportation. Shop
early for a wider selection of trees, and for fresh trees that
will last longer.
How can you easily check for freshness? First, pinch the
needles. If they bend rather than break, the tree is fresh. Run
your hand along the branches to see if the needles stay on or many
fall off. Or bounce the stump end of the tree on the ground. If
too many needles fall off, choose another tree. Another way to
check for freshness is to feel the base of the tree. If it is
sticky with resin, the tree was recently cut and should stand up
well throughout the holidays.
Upon getting your tree home, especially if you didn’t cut your
own, immediately place the base in a large bucket of warm water.
Warm water is absorbed faster than cold. Research has shown that
plain tap water is best for trees to last longest. Home
concoctions such as bleach, aspirin, lemon-lime soda, and many
preservatives actually may shorten tree life.
It is useful to recut a half inch off the base to open up the
water vessels in the trunk before putting it into water. One to
two inches cut off is not needed as often recommended (unless you
need to shorten the tree size), nor is an angled cut. Don’t trim
sides off the base of the trunk as that is where the tree takes up
Get a stand that can hold the trunk and your tree size. Use a
stand that holds at least a quart of water for small trees, a
gallon for large ones, as a freshly cut evergreen can drink that
much water each day. Generally figure on a quart of water for
each inch of trunk diameter at the base. So a trunk four inches
across ideally should have a stand holding four quarts (gallon) of
If your tree doesn’t start “drinking” water right away, and you
followed all these tips, it could be because the tree hasn’t
adjusted from the outdoors and started to dry out if you cut your
own. Or, if precut and fresh, it may not absorb much water until
it begins to dry out.
Choose a location away from heat sources (heat vents, radiators,
wood stoves, sunny windows) and doorways. Tall trees may need to
be secured with wire to walls and ceilings for support. I have a
bookcase affixed securely to the wall that I tie my tall trees to.
Return to Perry's Perennial Pages: Green Mountain Gardener Articles-- your reliable source of gardening information for over 50 years.