Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
What Makes a Good Christmas Tree?
The best Christmas trees have a perfect conical shape, lots of sturdy branches to hang your ornaments on and won’t drop their needles. The trees that you can buy on tree lots and the ones you can cut yourself on tree farms have most of these characteristics.
Trees that don’t grow in in a perfect conical shape are often pruned by the growers into that shape as they grow. When the growers prune the branches, each branch then “branches” into more branches. If the trees are pruned each year until they are cut down, they will have so many branches that there will be very little space to hang your ornaments.
Not all trees have branches that are able to bear a lot of weight. Some have branches that tend to be very flexible. This is a great adaption to regions which get a lot of snow. The branches bend, dumping the snow off, rather than stay stiff and breaking from the weight of the snow. I collect glass ornaments which are very light, so soft branches are not a problem for me. If you have ornaments that are made of heavier materials such as metal, wood or ceramic, flexible branches will not hold their weight and your ornaments will slide off your tree just like snow.
Your best bet is to bring a representative ornament with you and try hanging it on the tree that you are considering buying. Make sure there is enough space between the branches and that the branches are stiff enough to hold the weight.
Hands down, the most popular tree for use as a Christmas tree is the Fraser fir. They grow in an almost perfect conical shape, so there is no need or little need for pruning resulting in branches that are well-spaced for ornaments. The branches themselves are strong enough to hold most ornaments. Keep this one well-watered, and you won’t have to worry about it dropping its needles. As an added bonus, the needles have a nice piney scent.
The Fraser fir’s cousin, the Douglas fir, although popular has a few drawbacks. The branches are not as stiff as the Fraser fir so they won’t hold heavy ornaments. Also, it needs to be pruned to achieve the desirable conical shape, so there is not much room between branches for ornaments. This tree is popular in the Southern US because it tolerates the warmer, more humid weather found in that area.
Colorado Blue Spruce
The Colorado Blue Spruce is an excellent landscape tree because its light gray-blue needles add wonderful color to your yard. As a Christmas tree, the same color that is so attractive outdoors is less attractive indoors if it clashes with your holiday color scheme. On the plus side, it grows naturally into the ideal Christmas tree shape with stiff branches that hold heavy ornaments. It has good needle retention. However, the needles have an unpleasant odor if crushed.
Unlike its cousin, the Colorado Blue Spruce, the white spruce has green needles and blends well with any holiday décor. It too grows naturally into the ideal Christmas tree shape and has stiff branches that hold heavy ornaments. It has even better needle retention than the Colorado Blue Spruce, but its needles also have an unpleasant odor if crushed.
The Scotch Pine is a popular tree across the US because it is easy to grow anywhere. It does need pruning, so there is not as much space between the branches for ornaments, but those branches are nice and stiff and will stand up to heavy ornaments. You might want to wear gloves while handling this one. The needles are especially sharp. A big bonus with this tree is that it doesn’t shed its needles even if you forget to water it and it dries out.
The Virginia Pine is the most popular Christmas tree in the Southern US. It tolerates the warmer weather there and has excellent needle retention. Its needles are an interesting yellow-green color. The branches are stiff and will hold heavy ornaments.
Bet you didn’t know that there is a hypo-allergenic Christmas tree. The Leyland cypress, a popular Southern Christmas tree, has no sap. Only pine trees and fir trees produce sap. Cypress trees do not. So if you are allergic to tree sap, the Leyland cypress is for you. Leyland cypress do not occur in nature. They are a result of a cross between Monterey cypress and an Alaskan cedar. The branches are stiff and will hold heavy ornaments. The needles are gray-green in color and have no scent.
How to Care for Your Christmas Tree Indoors
If you are cutting your own tree at a farm, give it a thorough evaluation to make sure that it is healthy. Look for discolored needles, drooping limbs or missing limbs and whether the trunk is straight.
If you are purchasing your tree at a lot, give it the same evaluation plus do the needle test. You don’t know how long ago the tree was cut, so run your fingers along the branches. No needles should fall off if the tree is fresh. If needles do fall off, the tree was cut some time ago, and you need to make another selection.
When you get your tree home, if you bought it from a lot, give the trunk a new cut. When a tree is cut or wounded in some way, it will naturally try to seal the wound with sap to prevent insects or disease from getting in. In the case of a cut tree, this layer of sap will prevent the tree from being able to absorb water so it will dry out quickly and drop its needles. Cut 1 to 2 inches off the bottom of the trunk to get rid of the sap seal.
Set your tree in a sturdy stand away from sources of heat such as fireplaces, space heaters, and televisions. The heat will dry out the tree. If you have small children or pets, you might want to add a little “insurance” to prevent the tree from tipping over. I use monofilament line, which is clear to discreetly tie my tree up to small hooks on the wall behind it.
Water your tree well, filling the stand up completely. During the first week that your tree is in the stand, you will need to water it every day because it will “drink” up all the water in the stand. You don’t want the water level to drop below the bottom of the trunk which could cause it to dry out and drop its needles. After the first week, the tree will absorb less and less water as it gradually dries out and dies. There are commercial formulas that you can add to the water that promise to prolong the life of your tree, but they don’t work. Just stick to plain old water, especially if you have curious pets. I had a cat that liked to drink water from the tree stand. I was very grateful that I hadn’t used any chemicals in the water that might have seriously injured or killed him.
If you choose your Christmas tree carefully and keep it well watered, it should last the entire holiday season.
© 2018 Caren White