Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends gather to give thanks and share the bountiful feast of turkey with all the trimmings. For many families, it’s also time to share another tradition, seeking, choosing and purchasing the perfect Christmas tree.  Nothing symbolizes the start of the holiday season better than seeing vehicles of all kinds carrying home their prized Christmas trees.

“Christmas Tree 2008” by Brent Flanders CC BY NC-ND-2.0 .jpg

Whether artificial, precut, fresh cut or living, there’s a type of tree for every taste. But is there one variety of tree that stands out as the perfect Christmas tree? Kathy Kogut, president of the 235 member CT Tree Farmers Association, who’s members sell on average 150,000 holiday trees every year, says each variety of evergreen has its particular strengths. 

For that long Christmas tree fragrance, for example, the Balsam Fir is a popular choice. Douglas Fir has light green and soft needles and is a good choice for the budget minded. but not a good choice for heavy ornaments. White pine has dense soft needles and is a good choice for those with tree allergies. Spruce trees are not as popular due to their poor needle retention. Blue spruce has the best needle retention of all spruce trees, but its stiff needles come with an ouch factor. 

Outdoor evergreens can also be decorated for the holiday season. Photo by dmp2017.

Before purchasing a tree, Kogut recommends measuring the space where you plan to place your tree and taking those measurements to the tree farm along with a tape measure. This will help you avoid a common mistake, buying too big a tree. When choosing your tree, inspect all sides so the best side is displayed and make sure the base of the tree allows for 6-8 inches to fit into the stand.

Once home, before bringing your tree into the house, make a fresh cut one inch above the butt end, and place the tree in a stand that can hold at least one gallon of water. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your tree stand can hold one quart of water for each inch in diameter of trunk.

“Martin Family CHristmas Tree 2013” by C J Martin CC 2.0

Inside the house, make sure you choose a location for the tree away from heat sources like TV’s, fireplaces, radiators and air ducts. Maintain the water level above the tree base at all times. The tree will take up at least one quart of water a day, so checking for water daily is important to keep the tree fresh. No additives are needed. Plain water is completely adequate.

Kogut suggests that if you decide to purchase a precut tree from an urban lot, the same advice applies to measuring, and cutting before placing it in the tree stand. However, buyers should be aware that those trees may have been cut down weeks earlier, come from out of state and may have been. exposed to drying winds in transit. This may shorten the trees’ freshness and result in premature dropping of needles. 

Living trees, though beautiful, are, Kogut says, not good choices as a Christmas tree.  But, if you decide to use a living tree, don’t leave it in the house for more than a few days. Otherwise the warmth of the house could bring on new tender growth, which might kill the tree when brought outside to the harsh winter environment after the holidays.

“Wildlife – Recycled Christmas Tree” by danielle.brigida is licensed under CC BY 2.0.jpg

Lastly, consider recycling your Christmas tree. Many transfer stations will take the tree at no charge and turn them into chips. Or, consider placing your tree in the backyard and place suet and peanut butter covered pine cones, or bread in it for birds.

To learn more about Christmas trees, (https://ctchristmastree.org/) or contact UConn Home and Garden Education Center, (http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/).

Marie Woodward

Like many children, I found the Christmas season to be full of excitement and anticipation. What would we get from Santa? Would my parents and siblings like the gifts I got them? Did we make enough cookies for the neighborhood Christmas Eve carol stroll? Would there be snow on the ground? We never had to wonder about the Christmas tree, however, as my Dad always came home with a freshly cut, heavily scented balsam fir.

balsam fir & me

Balsam firs were our family’s traditional tree. Photo by dmp.

For years after leaving home, I followed this family tradition. After working in the horticultural industry and visiting local tree farms, I discovered a host of evergreen species that also would fit that perfect Christmas tree bill. Over the years, holiday décor included a Scots pine, white spruce, Douglas fir, a living Colorado blue spruce (planted in the white garden) and Fraser firs. Of them all, Fraser fir became our favorite.

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Colorado blue spruce planted in white garden years ago. Photo by dmp.

And, it is not just so with our family as according to several sources, Fraser firs are the nation’s most popular Christmas tree with Douglas fir and balsam fir running second and third, and the species most frequently chosen as the Christmas tree at the White House. As Fraser firs have such a limited native range, their rise to popularity is quite remarkable and the cultivation of this endangered species assures it will live on.

fraser fir needles

Fraser fir needles. Photo by dmp, 2018.

The Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) is a small to medium size evergreen tree named after the Scottish botanist, John Fraser (1750 – 1811) who made numerous botanical forays into the Appalachian region. It is endemic to a small, high elevation portion of the southern Appalachian Mountain range extending from eastern Tennessee to southwest Virginia to western North Carolina. This species grows in a biome referred to as a cool temperature rainforest distinguished by 75 to 100 inches of annual precipitation with summer highs in the 60s F and winter lows around 30 F. It grows on steep slopes with shallow, acidic soils and it is crucial to watershed protection.

At higher elevations, it grows in relatively pure stands but at lower heights it is associated with red spruce, yellow birch, pin cherry, mountain ash, eastern hemlock and yellow buckeye. Aside from its key role of holding onto the shallow soils and providing a beautiful scenic backdrop, Fraser fir seeds are a major food source for red squirrels. According to the Global Tree Campaign, Fraser firs are also essential to several other rarer species including the Weller’s salamander, the spruce-fir moss spider, the northern flying squirrel and also rock gnome lichens and (American) mountain ash.

Carolina northern flying squirrel from www.ncpedia.org

Carolina northern flying squirrel. Photo from http://www.ncpedia.org

Typically, Fraser firs grow about 50 to 60 feet high with a trunk up to 2 feet in diameter. The average lifespan is 150 years. They are noted for their dark green, fragrant foliage with one-half to one-inch long needles arranged spirally around the stem. This species is monecious meaning that both male and female flowers (strobili) are produced on the same tree. The flowers are pollinated by wind and cones form the same year. They ripen in fall and the winged seeds are wind dispersed some falling up to a mile away.

fraser fir cones from uconn plant database

Fraser fir cones from UConn Plant Database. http://www.hort.uconn.edu

Seeds do not seem to require a cold stratification for successful germination but the rate of seeds that germinate appears to be related to their maturity. Seeds released or collected from cones later in the season germinate at a higher rate than those collected or released earlier in the fall. The seeds can germinate on bare soil, moss, peat, tree stumps or litter but moisture is the key. Moss and peat stay moist longer and are better germination beds. Fraser firs are very shade tolerant so some seeds will germinate under the parent trees but the rate of growth is incredibly slow (2 to 3 feet in 20 years) until eventually exposed to sunlight whether due to windthrow or the death of parent trees. Fraser fir grows relatively fast on sunny sites, however, easily reaching 6 to 7 feet in less than 10 years.

The greenish brown bark of younger trees has resin-filled blisters on it. Because of this trait, sometimes Fraser firs were referred to as ‘she-balsams’ and distinguished from their less resinous companion species, the red spruce that were called ‘he-balsams’. Greyish fissures appear with age.

fraser fir bark 2

Fraser fir bark with blisters and fissures. Photo by dmp, 2018

Last year, the Mother Nature Network listed Fraser firs as one of the 11 most endangered trees in the U.S. The demise of the natural range of the tree is due to man-made causes such as air pollution and acid rain but mostly because of an invasive insect, the balsam woolly adelgid. This tiny, sucking insect was discovered on Mount Mitchell in North Carolina in 1957 and has spread pretty much through Fraser fir’s native range killing millions of trees. The insects attach themselves to stems, needles and bud bases relieving the tree of its vital fluids and resulting in the death of the tree in about 2 to 5 years. Even if they just weaken the tree, they open it up to attack from other insects such as bark beetles as well as diseases. Unfortunately, no one has found an economical way to treat Fraser firs against this insect in their natural habitat. At the present time, the young seedlings that are rising up as the overstory dies out are being watched for signs of attack by or resistance to the adelgids.

While it is true that Fraser fir is fighting for its life, so to speak, in the wild, we Fraser fir Christmas tree lovers are making sure that this tree species will never die out. Millions of Fraser firs are grown throughout the United States and Canada as well as in the United Kingdom because of its lush, soft, green needles, its perfect conical shape, its woodsy fragrance and best of all, its long needle retention.

Not only does Fraser fir make an ideal indoor Christmas tree, but it also makes an ideal outdoor one. Back in 1993, I worked at the first New England Grows, which I believe was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. As we were disassembling our exhibits, one of the growers was giving away seedlings of various evergreens and I brought home two foot-tall Fraser firs. After a few years, we started decorating one with white lights and continued to shape it year after year while leaving the other unpruned. It’s pretty amazing to think that the tree on the far right and the one on the far left are the same age – a little more than 25 years old. Right now the pruned tree is about 14 feet high and the unpruned one maybe about 35 feet tall.

2 fraser firs plus turkeys

The evergreen trees on far right and far left are 2 same aged Fraser firs. Photo by dmp, 2018.

So, if you aren’t already a Fraser fir aficionado, consider introducing yourself to one at your local Christmas tree farm. You may find yourself joining the fan club and at the same time encouraging the cultivation of an endangered species and supporting your local farmer.

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Fraser fir lit up with wooden animals around it. Photo by dmp, 2018.

A happy holiday season to all!

Dawn P.`