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How to Choose the Perfect Christmas Tree

How to Choose the Perfect Christmas Tree

Nothing gets you and your family into the Christmas spirit quite like bringing home a real Christmas tree. The bright greenery, the ritual of stringing the lights and hanging the ornaments, and that fresh scent wafting through the house all declare that the holiday season has officially begun.

While any real Christmas tree you buy will likely make a fine kick-off to the holiday season, we’d like to pass along some tips to help you select the best one on the lot. You’ll want your tree to look fresh and lively even when the 12 drummers are done drumming!

Measure twice, cut once

Before you leave the house to go Christmas tree shopping, measure the area where the tree will stand. Don’t try to eyeball it once you get to the lot; trees that look small outdoors suddenly appear much larger in the confines of a room.

Remember to leave space at the top for the star and space at the bottom for the Christmas tree stand. Measure the width of the space available and measure the maximum trunk diameter your tree stand will accept. Whittling down a tree’s trunk to fit into a too-small stand will limit your tree’s ability to take in water.

And don’t forget to bring your tape measure with you to the lot!

Buying a pre-cut christmas tree

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 85 percent of the 25 to 30 million Christmas trees sold each year in the US are sold as pre-cut trees. They may be sold from garden centers, retail lots, big box stores, non-profit groups, or Christmas tree farms. 

Buying a pre-cut tree is quick and easy. You simply pick one out, load it up, and off you go to deck the halls. However, you don’t always know how long a cut tree has been sitting on the lot or how long it was in transit from the grower to the retailer. Since freshness is paramount to having a tree that will look spiffy all season long, it’s important to know what to look for.

Read the signs

Avoid Christmas trees with needles that are dry or off-colored. Foliage should be vibrantly colored, and brown needles should be few and far between (having a smattering of brown or yellow needles in the interior is normal.) Fir needles should be quite glossy; those of spruces or pines may be somewhat more matte.

Gently move one of the branches back and forth. Does it bend easily? A fresh Christmas tree’s branches are pliable, not brittle. A single needle, on the other hand, should snap when bent.

Grasp a branch and run your fingers through the foliage. Very few of the needles should come off. Lift the butt end of the tree off the ground and let it drop. You shouldn’t see a shower of needles.

Smell the foliage. Fresh Christmas Trees retain more of their fragrance than do dried-out Trees. Some species are naturally more aromatic than others, though (see the list below). Trees that smell musty or moldy may have been tied up or packed together for too long in transit and should be avoided at all costs.

Buying a you-cut Christmas Tree

If you go to a Tree farm and cut your own Christmas Tree, you can certainly be assured that it’s a fresh one! It’s nice to support your local farmers, too. The overwhelming majority of real Christmas Trees do not come from forests, but are raised like crops—often on farmland too poor for growing food—and many farmers depend on the income. Visiting a cut-your-own Tree farm is also usually less expensive than buying a Tree from a retail lot.

The downside is that someone’s going to get dirty. The only way to get a good, straight cut is for one person to hold the Tree while the person with the saw lies on the ground to make the cut. Don’t wear your Sunday best.

Types of Christmas Trees

Evergreen Trees differ in their color, texture, density of foliage, fragrance, and needle retention. Study up on the types of Christmas Trees available in your area to determine which species will best meet your needs. Here’s the scoop on the Trees you’re most likely to find when you go shopping for that perfect Christmas Tree to grace your livingroom.

Balsam Fir is a beloved classic Christmas Tree with lustrous forest green needles and a wonderful strong balsam scent. Aromatic resin blisters on its trunk may be chewed like gum. (It’s no Juicy Fruit, but for pioneer kids it was a treat.) Balsam Fir is a slow grower, so it may fetch a higher price than other Trees. Locally grown Balsam Firs are found only in the cool, moist, humid climates they require. They retain their needles well.

Fraser Fir is sometimes called as the “Cadillac of Christmas Trees.” Its delightful fresh scent, rich blue-green needles, lovely form, and good leaf retention make it the first choice of many discriminating shoppers, especially those in the eastern U.S. Fraser Fir is grown by the thousands on Tree farms in the Southern Appalachians near the areas where this Tree is native. It does ship well to other parts of the country.

Noble Fir is a top Christmas Tree choice in the Pacific Northwest. Like other Fir Trees mentioned here, its lustrous dark blue-green foliage is soft to the touch. (“Firs are friendly” is one way to remember the difference between most Firs and Spruces.) Its sturdy branches are good for supporting heavy ornaments, like that chunky clay Santa that Sophia made in kindergarten. A newly cut Noble Fir Christmas Tree stays fresh-looking for a long time in the house.

Douglas Fir is another western species that is a bestseller in the Pacific Northwest, though its fair adaptability to growing conditions in other areas and its excellent shipping qualities have made it a popular Christmas Tree in many regions. Its soft, thin needles are green to blue-green and give off the fresh scent of camphor, like an Oregon forest after a rain (where Doug Firs can top 250 ft. in height). Technically, Douglas Fir isn’t really a Fir Tree, and its scientific name has changed 20 times. It holds its needles longer than true Firs.

Colorado Blue Spruce makes a stunning Christmas Tree, though its wickedly sharp needles make decorating it a little dicey. The smell of the bruised foliage is not so hot, either, but its looks are what makes this one stand out. Colorado Spruces are grown from seed and can range in color from medium green to silvery blue. The bluest ones are called “shiners” and are singled out both for Christmas Trees and for landscaping. Blue Spruce has decent needle retention. Another kind of Spruce, White Spruce, is usually more green in color and has a good form and strong branches. White Spruce’s foul smell has earned it the nickname, “Skunk Spruce,” however. The Norway Spruce so common in landscapes throughout much of the country is only an effective Christmas Tree in the short-term, because it doesn’t hold on to its needles very well indoors.

Scotch Pine, or Scots Pine, is a good all-purpose Christmas Tree that is adaptable and economical. It grows at a moderate clip and takes well to shearing, and growers can produce a nice, full 6-ft. plant in only 5 or 6 years. The 2-in. needles are gray-green in color and the branches are strong and sturdy. It holds its needles for weeks.

Virginia Pine grows well on poor soils and tolerates heat (most traditional types of Christmas Trees detest hot, humid weather), making it a good option in the southern states. It becomes dense and full when sheared and the branches are strong.

White Pine has soft, wispy, light blue-green needles that are longer than those of any other Christmas Tree—up to 5 inches. The branches are quite flexible and able to support only lightweight ornaments. White Pine is lacking in fragrance but makes an elegant Christmas Tree and holds its needles well.

Leyland Cypress is a hybrid ornamental Tree that has a slightly different look than that of more traditional Christmas Trees. Instead of needles, this conifer has flattened, lacy sprays of gray-green foliage. Its lightening-fast growth rate and heat tolerance has made it the Christmas Tree of choice in the Southeast. It has little aroma and doesn’t aggravate allergies in people sensitive to Christmas Tree sap.

Be a savvy shopper

The sights, smells, and experience of a real Christmas Tree in your home will forever be woven into your family’s holiday memories. Make it a Tree worth remembering and not a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree! Use the tips here to be a savvy shopper and pick out the best Tree on the lot.

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