Christmas Tree Choices

A picture of a Norway Spruce

When it comes to Christmas trees, most families have a favorite species that is and always has been their idea of what a Christmas tree is.

By Robert M. Weaver

This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener November 2008 issue.

When it comes to Christmas trees, most families have a favorite species that is and always has been their idea of what a Christmas tree is. In my childhood it was a Douglas Fir. In my wife’s, it was a Scotch Pine. So when we married, we compromised, and have had Scotch Pines ever since.

Whether you buy your real tree from a farm or a lot, be sure to consider the characteristics of different tree types to get the most out of your tree. Here are some of the different firs, pines and spruces you’ll find around town and country, with descriptions courtesy of the National Christmas Tree Association:

WHITE PINE: Soft, flexible needles and bluish-green in color. Needles are 2 1⁄2 – 5 in. long. Good needle retention, but little aroma. Not recommended for heavy ornaments.

WHITE SPRUCE: Excellent for ornaments; it’s short, stiff needles are 1⁄2 – 3/4 in. long with a blunt tip. Bluish-green to green in color, with an unpleasant aroma when needles are crushed. Excellent foliage color and good, natural shape. Needle retention is better than with other spruces.

FRASER FIR: One of the most popular varieties in St. Louis area. Branches turn slightly upward with good form and needle-retention. Dark blue-green in color, with a pleasant scent.

DOUGLAS FIR: Soft needles are dark green – blue green in color, approximately 1 – 1 1⁄2 in. in length radiating in all directions from the branch. When crushed, these needles have a sweet fragrance.

BALSAM FIR: Another very popular tree in St. Louis. Needles are 3/4 – 1 1⁄2 in. in length and last a very long time. Dark-green appearance and retains its pleasing fragrance throughout the Christmas season.

SCOTCH PINE: Approximately 1 in. in length, needles don’t even fall when they’re dry, providing excellent needle retention. The color is a bright green. The most common Christmas tree in the U.S., with excellent survival rate for live trees, is easy to replant, with great keepability and will remain fresh throughout the holiday season.

VIRGINIA PINE: Needles occur in twisted pairs and range from 1.5-3” long. Branches are stout and woody, and foliage can be extremely dense. Small trunks make it easy to fit in a stand, and features a pleasant pine scent and excellent needle retention.

NORWAY SPRUCE: The Norway Spruce has beautiful color with short, stout needles, but does not hold its needles as well as some other trees, so purchase and installation in the home should be postponed as long as possible, and keep the tree well watered.


Tips for Terrific Trees

It didn’t look that big in the field/lot! But you bring it home, and your new tree doesn’t fit in your old stand. So, you get out the axe and start whittling away. There! Just an inch or so all the way around, and…perfect!


But a little tree physiology will tell you what you just did wrong. The vessels in a tree responsible for water and nutrient movement from roots to leaves and back are in a very thin layer immediately beneath the outer bark. Cut those away, and you’ve removed the trees ability to soak up water.


So before you buy a tree, make sure you can fit it in a stand without major surgery. Do that, and follow these other tips for keeping your tree fresh, and you’ll be able to enjoy your real Christmas tree all season long.

  • Once home, keep the tree in water and in a cool, not freezing, spot until ready to bring indoors.
  • Before putting the tree in the stand, make a fresh cut to remove a 1/4″ to 1″ thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk.
  • Use a stand with an adequate water holding capacity for the tree. As a general rule, stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter.
  • Keep displayed trees away from sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents, direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process.
  • Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree.
  • Do not use additives in the water, including floral preservatives, commercial tree preservatives, molasses, sugar, bleach, soft drinks, aspirin, honey, and other concoctions.
  • Use of miniature lights will produce much less heat and reduce drying of the tree.
  • Monitor the tree for freshness. After Christmas or if the tree is dry, remove it from the house.
  • Go to and type in your zip code to find a recycling program near you.