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Pining for the perfect Christmas tree? Choose one of these

December 1, 2012

The beauty of a green, fresh-cut tree is one of the highlights of the holiday season. If you're among the millions of Americans who still treasure a fresh-cut Christmas tree, a trip to your local tree lot or Christmas tree farm is probably on your calendar.

As you choose among pine, spruce and fir, consider price, tree color and fragrance, branch stiffness, needle softness and length, and how well the tree holds on to its needles.

According to Kathy Zuzek, University of Minnesota Extension horticulturist, here's how some of the commonly available trees stack up:

Scots pine

R.A. Howard, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Scots pine

Scots pine was introduced into the United States, probably in colonial times, from Europe. It's typically the least expensive of Christmas tree species. Its needles are 2-3 inches, and its stiff branches will support heavy ornaments. Pines have the best needle retention followed by the firs and then the spruces.

Eastern white pine

Robert H. Mohlenbrock, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Eastern white pine

Eastern White pine is a bluish green tree native to Minnesota. White pine is very fragrant. If it's pain-free decorating you're after, choose a white pine (or one of the firs) as they are known for the softness of their needles, which are 3-4 inches long. White pine is best decorated with lightweight ornaments, bows, and ribbons because of its soft flexible branches. Red pine, also known as Norway pine, is another good option among Minnesota's native pines.

White spruce

J.S. Peterson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

White spruce

White spruce, another Minnesota native, often starts to bud out even as a cut tree and the resulting light green shoots add contrast, color and interest. White spruce have the shortest (about ½ inch) needles. When the needles of white spruce are crushed, the scent is unpleasant to many people.

Colorado spruce needles are about 1 inch long and their color ranges from green to blue. If you decorate with heavy ornaments, a Colorado spruce is a good choice, although it is one of the most expensive species. Like white spruce, the needles may give off an unpleasant scent. Blue-green forms of Colorado spruce will provide a beautiful backdrop for your ornaments.

Balsam fir

Robert H. Mohlenbrock, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Balsam fir tree

Balsam, Fraser, and Canaan firs are three closely related firs, with soft 1-inch needles, and are among the most popular Christmas trees. These firs, especially Fraser firs, have a beautiful silvery cast. Balsam firs are possibly the most fragrant of Christmas trees, followed closely by the other firs. Canaan firs have become popular Christmas trees because they combine the silvery beauty of a Fraser fir with the appealing scent of a balsam fir. Fraser fir has the sturdiest branches of the firs, and it's also one of the most expensive Christmas trees on the lot.

Caring for your tree

No one likes a tree that drops its needles before Christmas. Zuzek suggests checking the freshness of the tree before leaving the tree lot by shaking it or running your hand gently over a branch and watching for the amount of needle drop.

"Few needles should drop from the outer edges of the tree branches," Zuzek says. "Make sure needles and branch ends feel flexible rather than dry and brittle."

If you have a long drive home, transport your tree inside the vehicle or wrapped in a tarp on top to prevent drying from the wind.

When you arrive home, cut one inch off of the bottom of your tree immediately. Put it in the tree stand and add water right away. Check the water level two to three times per day for the first few days and daily after that, always keeping the water level above the base of the tree.

Fresh trees use up to one quart of water per inch of trunk diameter daily. Zuzek recommends a tree stand that holds enough water for a 24-hour period. If the stand goes dry, water uptake will stop and your tree will dry up rapidly.

Where should you place your tree? Zuzek says the best spot (to prevent needles from dropping) is away from direct sunlight, heaters, furnace vents and fireplaces.

Happy decorating!

For more yard and garden information, subscribe to University of Minnesota Extension's Yard and Garden News.

Source: Kathy Zuzek, University of Minnesota Extension horticulturist
Media Contact: Catherine Dehdashti, U of M Extension, (612) 625-0237, ced@umn.edu

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