A Symbol of the Season

A Symbol of the Season

Finland (Lapland) has Santa Claus, Germany has its Christmas markets and Russia is noted for their traditional, handmade Christmas ornaments. But who has bragging rights for the first decorated Christmas tree? Located in Northeastern Europe, nestled between Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania lays the country Latvia. Riga, Latvia has by many been credited with first decorating an evergreen tree in the year 1510. This popular holiday tradition, decorating Christmas trees, may have started here, but today in the United States we celebrate by purchasing nearly 35 million Real Christmas Trees every year as reported by the National Christmas Tree Association.

Sold commercially in the United States since about 1850, Christmas trees have been subject to many speculations and myths. First, of the nearly 35 million trees sold each year, 95 percent are shipped and sold directly from Christmas tree farms. California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are among the leading producers with Oregon consistently ranking toward the top. Typically, the best selling trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir, Balsam fir and White pine for reasons which will be discussed further in the article. More than 2,000 trees, on average, are planted per acre of which half to two thirds will survive. It takes an average of six to ten years to obtain a mature six to seven foot tree, fighting the elements of rain, wind, ice and drought to name a few. There are more than 21,000 Christmas tree growers in North America and nearly 12,000 “cut-your-own” farms. Finally, 2-3 seedlings are planted for every harvested Christmas tree. So much for the statistics.

Much more is needed to produce the quintessential Christmas tree than simply taking a seedling, planting it, and hoping for the best. Science and technology have largely improved upon the early days of 1851 when Mark Carr opened the first Christmas tree retail lot in New York. Today’s trees are sought out and “created” to ensure that the most perfect, predictable and “hardy” tree will endure to its final destination, your home. This past summer while I was visiting nurseries and tagging nursery stock for next spring, I had the opportunity to visit a Christmas tree grower in Oregon. Silver Mountain Christmas Trees in Oregon is one of the largest producers of Christmas trees in the United States. Owner and operator Jim Heater was kind enough to show his operation and educate me on the science of growing the perfect tree. First, seed orchards are created to find elite seeds. To obtain these seeds cones must be present and autumn is the right time of year to harvest. Careful hands pollinate and cross pollinate several families to produce stronger trees. When the cones are mature they are picked and then thrashed to remove the seed which are then cleaned. Seeds are then planted precisely by a Vacuum Precision Seeder which spaces out seedlings, giving them equal shares of sunlight, moisture and space, thus eliminating problems from being too close. Grown in seed beds for two years, these future trees are then uprooted and replanted again into a transplant bed. A Reciprocating Undercutter Wrencher, another patented piece of machinery that is sold throughout the world by Silver Mountain, root prunes underneath the ground, thus creating more fibrous feeder roots able to take in more nutrients.

Eventually these small trees are brought to production beds where they will continue to be nurtured and evaluated. After all “a good start ensures, healthy, stronger plants.” Over the next 6 to 10 years, Jim’s trees will continue to be monitored until they are ready to be harvested. Hand culturing begins once the trees hit his production fields. This is done to create a nice full pyramid, for which many demand at market. Shearing the trees properly helps create an almost perfect product for an imperfect profession. Double topping helps eliminate competing leaders, creating a nice, straight top. This is done on an individual basis and thus is very labor intensive. Grading crews evaluate quality and height and harvesting starts in November. Silver Mountain can harvest 5,000 trees a day as crews work almost around the clock. The most remarkable part of the harvest though is his ability to work over any terrain or through almost any weather. Helicopters are used to pull trees out of his fields, thus eliminating damage to his trees.

Whether you purchase a tree from a “cut-your-own” farm or garden center there are many choices to consider. Fragrance, needle retention, texture and color dictate many a decision. Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) has short, flat, long lasting needles that are dark green with a silver cast. Typically, this tree is associated with having that “traditional Christmas tree smell.” Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) smells like oranges. Needles are blue to dark green, about 1 ½” and also hold their needles well. Named for David Douglas who studied the tree in the 1800’s, this tree can live for a thousand years. White Pine (Pinus strobus) has soft, long, blue-green needles with a very full appearance. This tree has very little fragrance and doesn’t hold heavy ornaments as well. Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) has stiff branching, dark green needles that are about an inch long and hold ornaments very well. Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) has quickly become the standard for Christmas trees. Dark green-blue needles, about an inch long, adorn this pyramidal-shaped tree. Good fragrance and excellent needle retention have catapulted this tree to stardom over the last decade. Last but not least is Noble fir (Abies procera). If I could liken a tree for a moment to a car, than this is your Ferrari. Bluish-green needles that are almost rubbery to the touch never seem to shed on your floor. Stiff branches hold heavier ornaments and it has a great fragrance.

Another way to enjoy your holiday is by planting a b&b tree. B&B (ball and burlap) trees are live trees that you can later plant in your yard. Though it can be more of an arduous task the rewards are numerous. Thoughtfully pick a location in your yard suitable for a conifer. Remember that most conifers, a cone-bearing tree or shrub, do not like shade. While there are a few exceptions, those listed previously enjoy more sun than shade. Remember that these species trees are all majestic giants. They will some day reach for the sky. So give them plenty of room and try not to plant them in a hedge line five feet apart from one another as this will have a pejorative affect on your landscape. Be mindful that live trees are becoming more popular. Go to your local plant purveyor and ask to purchase your tree and have it delivered or picked up closer to Christmas. Once your tree is home place it in your garage for a day or two, so as to slowly acclimate the tree from the temperature outside from that of inside. Try not to have your live tree in your house for more than five to seven days and reverse the procedure when you plant your tree after the holidays. Dig the hole prior to the ground freezing as this will facilitate your planting.

Evergreens around the holiday conjure up feelings of nostalgia, longing for our childhood past. Cut trees are multi faceted as they can be recycled and used as mulch after the holiday season. Live trees not only provide a habitat for wildlife but also grow as our families do. Wherever you purchase your tree this year be cognizant of its height as trees look smaller outside than they do inside your home. Check for needle retention by pulling on the limbs to see if any needles fall off. Remember to put a fresh cut on your cut tree and keep it well irrigated during the first ten days. A cut tree can consume more than a quart of water per day. Choose a cool location away from drafts and any nearby heat source such as a fireplace, radiator or stove. Feel great about your purchase knowing that this year alone nearly 73 million new Christmas trees will be planted. Finally, remember that cut trees came from mother earth…so be kind and recycle when possible. Consumers can locate the nearest recycling program by logging onto www.realchristmastrees.org or by calling 1-800-CLEANUP.