“A Cut Above – Secrets to Selecting the Perfect Christmas Tree”
By Francis Schell © 2008-2009 Litchfield Magazine, Holiday Issue, pgs 58-61
Every year around this time I worry. I see harvested conifers by the hundreds for sale outside supermarkets, food shops, flower shops, gas stations, churches, at nurseries and roadside stands. They are waiting to be hauled off to someone’s heated house, eventually to wither and be thrown on the trash heap. In my tree-hugging mode, I imagine primeval forests being systematically denuded, all to fuel the decorating frenzy of our Christmas season.
To ease my mind, I did some research and guess what? I needn’t worry. It turns out that for every one of those trees felled in the fall – and there are close to 33 million live Christmas trees sold in our country every year – three are planted the following spring, according to the University of Illinois Agricultural Extension. The saplings don’t all survive, but at least as many do as have been cut. It is part of the giant Christmas-tree industry, an enormous Santa’s workshop that touches all 50 states and Canada, gives employment to 100,000 people, and produces millions in revenue. It is even healthy for the environment.
The practice of bringing green boughs into the home to celebrate the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice goes back to the Egyptians and the Romans, but it was Saint Boniface, the apostle of Germany, who in the eighth century dedicated the fir tree to the Christ child to replace the pagan sacred oak, and probably gave impetus to the Christmas – tree tradition. It thrived in Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and one legend has Martin Luther as the first to decorate a tree with candles for his children. The practice is said to have reached our shores with German settlers in Pennsylvania. In 1851, Mark Carr, a farmer in the Catskills, loaded his sled with evergreens and took them to New York, where he sold them all. By 1900 one in five American households had a Christmas tree.
The choices are many “and each variety of tree has its passionate advocates,” says Audrey King, manager at Scott’s Landscaping & Nursery in New Milford, where they sell New England - grown Frasers, Douglas firs and concolors. The Fraser fir, native to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, is overall the most popular because it is naturally pyramidal, retains its blue-green-silvery needles longest, and has a nice fragrance. Some discriminating buyers, however, prefer the western concolor or white fir. They find it not as prickly as the others, more open, and they like its fragrance.
Smell is in the nose of the smeller. My family swears by the fragrant balsam fir, a close cousin of the Fraser. (Its resin from blisters on the bark was a substitute for chewing gum, and today it is used for microscope slides and as an ingredient in a home cold remedy.) Inside the house the Balsam’s needles drop sooner than those of others …The Douglas fir (“one of the best aromas”) has its partisans, and the noble fir, the blue spruce, the white pine, the Scotch pine, (the country-wide best seller, per the National Christmas Tree Association) all vie for best fragrance and best needle retention.
Regardless of the variety, years of hard work go into creating Christmas trees. Paul Smith, president of Cool Springs Nursery in Boone, North Carolina, which grows 700,000 Fraser firs on its 400 acres says, “We plant fields of trees every year in anticipation that down the road customers will buy them. A typical seven – to eight – foot tree is 12 to 14 years old when it is sold, and it has had some 200 procedures done to it in its lifetime.” It first sprouts from a seed planted in a seed bed. After two or three years, when it is four to five inches high, it goes to a transplant bed where it stays for another two or three years. When it is a foot tall, it is set out in the field where it grows until it is harvested. All this time it needs to be fertilized, weeded, pest-controlled, and from the time it’s less than waist-high, annually sheared by hand. “When you take all that work into consideration,” Smith adds, “whatever price you pay for a tree, you are getting a bargain.” You have also received a bonus. Every acre planted with Christmas trees produces the daily oxygen need for 18 people. Multiply the number of acres – 447,000 – devoted to Christmas trees in this country – and millions of us breathe more easily.
So do Canadians, for north of the border the tree business is huge. Take the Downey Tree Company near Sherbrooke, Quebec. It harvests close to 85,000 firs a year from its 3,000 acre nursery, mostly Frasers, but also the native balsams. (The company is working on a hybrid Fraser-balsam, known for a lack of a better name as “Falsam.”) The company also produces plugs or seedlings it sells to other growers. Says Patrick Downey: “We begin cutting here on November 1st. Moisture is the key to needle retention and we have a very short window while the trees are still full of sap before the frost sets in. Ninety-five percent of our trees go the United States.”
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