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Selecting the perfect Christmas tree

a conifer branch is covered in snow

As you begin to search for that perfect holiday tree, careful selection for quality and freshness can keep the holidays safe and attractive. A tree purchased from a lot will not be as fresh as one you cut yourself. Commercial trees are cut early in the season and may lose freshness in transportation and storage. Regardless of the tree you choose, be sure it is fresh.

  • Needles should be firmly attached and pliable. The cut end of a fresh tree should be sticky with sap. The needles should be quite fragrant (fir and white pine have the strongest scent). If many needles are dry and fall off, the tree is not very fresh and should not be purchased.
  • Pines retain their needles the longest, with Scots and red holding their needles longer than white pine. Spruce trees drop their needles the fastest.
  • Branches should be full and bushy and strong enough to support ornaments.


    Common Christmas Tree Selections

    Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Excellent
    • COMMENTS: Dark green needles, white stripe underside, full bodied shape, stiff branches

    White fir (Abies concolor)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION:Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Very good
    • COMMENTS: Loosely spaced branches shows off ornaments well

    Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Excellent
    • COMMENTS: Dark green flat needles, strong upturned branches hold ornaments

    Red pine (Pinus resinosa)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Good
    • COMMENTS: Strong bushy branches, 4-6 inch long needles, retains needles longest of pines

    White pine (Pinus strobus)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Very good
    • COMMENTS: Soft, blue/green needles, floppy branches do not support weight of heavy ornaments

    Scots pine (Pinus sylvestis)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Excellent
    • FRAGRANCE: Good
    • COMMENTS: Dark green needles, stiff branches have an open appearance, holds needs longest of pines

    Norway spruce (Picea abies)

    • FRAGRANCE: Good
    • COMMENTS: Conical shape, 1-inch needles, short

    White spruce (Picea glauca)

    • FRAGRANCE: Poor
    • COMMENTS: Blue/green , short stiff needles

    Colorado spruce (Picea pungens)

    • FRAGRANCE: Good
    • COMMENTS: Dark green to blue needles, stiff branches

    Douglas-Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii)

    • NEEDLE RETENTION: Very good
    • FRAGRANCE: Excellent
    • COMMENTS: One of best aromas, soft medium/dark green needles, firm branches

    Prolong the life of your Christmas tree

    Maintaining a fresh tree with proper care is probably the best fire prevention, but no matter how well you care for a tree, it is not likely to remain fresh much longer than three weeks.

    • Store tree in a bucket of warm water in a cool, wind free area, such as an unheated garage until tree is ready to be brought indoors.
    • Prior to placing a tree in a stand, make a fresh cut in the bottom of the trunk to aid in water uptake. Keep the cut end in water at all times. A tree in a warm dry room will go through water rapidly. Check the water level daily.
    • Avoid placing a tree near hot or cold drafts which promotes needle drop.

    Recycle leftover decorations and Christmas trees

    • Winter birds appreciate the cover of a tree, especially if decorated with bird-food ornaments (suet, molded seed, nuts, and berries). Tie it to a stake or post to prevent it rolling away in winter winds.
    • Cut up tree branches and use as winter mulch on perennial flowerbeds. Evergreen boughs placed on top of low growing plants provide protection, especially in late winter when freezing and thawing of the soil heaves shallow-rooted perennials out of the ground
    • One or more trees (borrow from neighbor) can be fastened to stakes to make temporary windbreaks to shield tender, broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons or young, newly planted evergreen. Plan ahead by securing stakes in the ground before the ground freezes.

    Live Christmas trees

    A living Christmas tree is a live tree with its own roots still attached. The purpose is to have the tree for the holiday season then plant it outdoors. The idea has merit, but in order to be successful it does require advance planning. Proper preparation and care of the tree are essential.

    • In the fall choose a suitable site in your landscape for the tree.
    • Dig the planting hole in the fall before the ground freezes. Remove the soil and place it in an area where it will not freeze. Cover the hole and any remaining excavated soil with straw to prevent freezing.
    • Select a balled and burlapped tree with a solid root ball. Keep in mind a smaller tree has a better chance of survival, is less expensive, and will be easier to handle.
    • Keep the soil ball moist and store in a cool garage, porch, or shed. Place straw or other insulating materials around the soil ball to prevent it from freezing.
    • A few days before Christmas bring the balled and burlapped tree indoors, wrap the soil ball in plastic. Place the tree in a cool location; avoid sites near heat sources, such as a fireplace or heat registers
    • The shorter the tree's stay indoors, the better its chances of survival when planted outdoors. The maximum stay indoors should be 5 to 7 days. If the tree is kept indoors for a longer period the buds may break dormancy, and dry indoor heat will cause needles to drop.
    • Keep the soil ball moist throughout the tree's stay indoors. Check the soil daily and water as needed.
    • Shortly after Christmas, remove the tree from the house and place it in a cool location. (Don't place the tree directly outdoors. The sharply colder temperatures outdoors may injure the tree.) A brief stay in a cool garage will allow the tree to gradually become acclimated to cooler temperatures. The soil ball should not be allowed to freeze during this period.
    • On a relatively mild winter day, remove the straw from the planting area and plant the tree outdoors. Water well and mulch the area heavily to prevent the soil from freezing immediately.
    • Continue to monitor the soil moisture for the rest of the growing season.

    Holiday Greens

    • Evergreen branches used for indoor decorations should be given the same precautions used for a live Christmas tree. If they become too brittle and dry they may be a fire hazard. Proper care will not only make greens safer, but they will remain attractive longer. Avoid placing near a heat source.
    • The longest lasting greens are those pruned from the landscape. If purchased, recut the stems and place branches in a bucket of water, storing in the coolest place available until you are ready to bring them indoors.
    • Some of the best materials to use as holiday greenery include Douglas fir, yew, holly, boxwood, pine, and juniper. Juniper and holly have the shortest indoor life and needles of hemlock and spruce drop too quickly to be used indoors.
    • Check all purchased greenery for signs of insects or disease.