If you haven't already started a Christmas tradition of purchasing a real tree, this is the year to begin. Real evergreen trees are renewable resources, making them a more ecologically sound choice than artificial trees. And an artificial tree can't match a real evergreen for beauty, warmth, and fragrance.
But what type of tree should you pick? Several species are popular, including Scotch pine, white pine, balsam fir, Fraser fir, Douglas fir, and noble fir. These evergreens vary in needle size, fragrance, needle retention and appearance. Here are some short descriptions of top-selling varieties:
• Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the most popular Christmas tree. Its twisted, 1- to 3-inch long, dark green to blue-green needles grow in bundles of two. Scotch pine has an open appearance, good aroma and retains needles for about four weeks. As an added bonus, dry needles do not drop. Branches are stiff which makes them well-suited for decorating.
• Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) have blue-green, 3- to 5-inch long soft, flexible needles in bundles of five. White pines have a full, soft appearance with little to no fragrance and very good needle retention. White pines produce fewer allergic reactions than do some of the more aromatic species. Their slender branches will support fewer decorations than Scotch pine's.
• Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is a popular choice because of its color, excellent fragrance and fair needle retention. The 0.5- to 1-inch long soft needles are shiny dark green on top and silvery white underneath. The solitary needles are generally flat with rounded tips.
• Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) has a pleasing fragrance and excellent needle retention. The 0.5- to 1-inch long flat needles have an attractive shiny dark blue-green color above and a silver cast below.
• Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not related to the true firs. It has 1- to 1.5-inch long dark green or blue-green flat needles that are soft to the touch. Needle retention is good and trees have good form, color, and density. Douglas firs have one of the best Christmas tree aromas.
• Noble fir (Abies procera) has short stiff branches. The flat, 1-inch long needles are blue-green with a silvery appearance.
For more facts and tips about real Christmas trees, visit University of Illinois Extension's "Christmas Trees & More" Web site at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/trees/index.html.
More than pines and firs
If your evergreens need to be trimmed this winter, use the cuttings in a holiday wreath, swag or roping. Several evergreen species can be used for holiday decorating.
Spruce (Picea) species have solitary stiff, sharp pointed needles. Needles are usually flat on the bottom and slightly rounded on the top. Blue spruce has dark green to powdery blue 1- to 1.5-inch long needles. Norway spruce has shiny 0.5- to 1-inch long dark green needles. Norway and blue spruces have a pleasing fragrance and dense foliage, but needles drop off in about two weeks.
Juniper (Juniperus) needles are coarse, sharp and come in several shades of greens and blues. Needle retention is very good.
Boxwood (Buxus) is small leafed broadleaf evergreen that has very good leaf retention. The lustrous, dark green oblong leaves are 0.5- to 1-inch long.
Hemlock (Tsuga) needles are the softest of the evergreens. Solitary, 0.5- to 0.7-inch long needles are usually accompanied by small cones. Hemlock needle retention is poor.
Yews (Taxus) are a common evergreen shrub. Freshly cut yew branches will survive about one week without water. Yews produce a red berry that while beautiful is considered poisonous.
Holly (Ilex) is a broadleaf evergreen that has good leaf retention. American holly has 1.5- to 3.5-inch long spiny leaves. Female hollies have a red berry that persists through the winter.