NC State Extension Publications

Selecting the Right Tree

Selecting the “perfect” Christmas tree for your home can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for the entire family. Decorating and displaying a real Christmas tree is a tradition followed by generations of families. Christmas trees are grown in almost every county in North Carolina. Fraser firs from the North Carolina mountains are shipped nationwide. Farm-raised Christmas trees are grown sustainably and are completely recyclable. While hardier than most flowers, fruits or vegetables, real Christmas trees are also perishable. For your Christmas tree to hold up past the holidays, it should be selected and cared for with freshness in mind. By following a few simple guidelines, buyers can select trees which will meet their needs throughout the holiday season.

Before setting out to buy a tree, determine where the tree will be displayed, measure the available space, and consider whether all sides will be seen. For example, inexpensive “number 2” trees have two good adjacent sides that present well from the corner of a room. If the tree will be seen from all sides a “number 1” or premium-grade tree may be more desirable. Sold by height class, Christmas trees come in all sizes. You should be able to find one to fit your space. Christmas tree characteristics such as foliage density, color, and fragrance that vary from species to species might also be important as you plan your holiday decorating.

Other shopping choices include making a decision between purchasing a cut tree or a living "balled and burlapped" (B&B) tree. B&B trees are sold with roots intact so that replanting is possible after the holiday season. Once established in your landscape, a Christmas tree becomes a reminder of that special year it was planted. If you choose to buy a living tree, make sure it will live in you climate. Special care should include regular watering, reduced room temperature, and a shorter display period in a heated home. Additional information about buying and caring for a B&B tree is available at Selection and Care of Living Christmas Trees.

You might also have a choice of numerous places to buy a real tree. These include “choose & cut” farms, grower-operated, civic, and charitable retail lots, or retail stores and garden centers. The process of finding the perfect tree to cut yourself on a local farm has become a unique experience and tradition for many families. However, retail lots often provide closer proximity, greater convenience, and a different selection of tree species from the local farm. Good quality, fresh trees can be found in any venue.

In North Carolina, there are a number of native-grown trees available for purchase, including Fraser fir, white pine, Virginia pine, red cedar, Leyland cypress and others. Each tree species has unique characteristics that you may find desirable. As individual growers experiment with exotic Christmas tree species from other parts of the world, you can sometimes find something completely different. For many purchasers, the “perfect” tree harkens back to the same kind of tree they had when growing up.

Fraser fir has all the qualities of an excellent Christmas tree including strong branches, soft foliage, a pleasant fragrance, good needle retention, and an ability to stay fresh throughout the holiday season. Its branching structure provides both the strength and space for large ornaments. Foliage color is generally a lustrous dark green. Fraser fir represents over 96% of trees grown in North Carolina.

White pine is a softer-textured tree with more pliable limbs than those of Fraser fir. At nearly three inches, its green and white needles, grouped in bundles of five, are longer than those of most other Christmas tree species. Most white pines have dense branching to give them a full conical shape. White pines also have a pleasant woodsy aroma. White pine foliage exhibits excellent needle retention in all its many uses -- as trees, wreaths, roping, or other greenery decorations.

Virginia pine is often sold from “choose and cut” farms and has a rich piney fragrance, good needle retention when displayed in water, and stout branches to support heavier ornaments. Virginia pine's twisted needles occur in pairs and range from 1 1/2" to 2" in length. It has stronger branches and stiffer needles than white pine. The dark green color of all Virginia pines sold as Christmas trees are color-enhanced since pines lose their natural green color every autumn.

Eastern Red Cedar: Many people prefer red cedar because it was the traditional southern Christmas tree they grew up with. Red cedar has small needles or scales that produce sprays of foliage rather than distinct branches with rows of needles. Its flexible limbs will support lighter ornaments. Red cedar has a nice fragrance. It may dry rapidly in a warm house if not well-watered. If cut fresh from a local Choose & Cut farm, it can be properly cared for, watered regularly, and hold up throughout the holidays.

Leyland cypress is a relative newcomer in the Christmas tree market. As with red cedar, its foliage is made up of fans or sprays of small, scaled needles on soft flexible limbs. Its upright branches have a feathery appearance. It has a brighter green color than red cedar. Leyland cypress has a very attractive shape and full branching overall. Like redcedar, Leyland cypress dries rapidly in a warm house if not regularly watered.

Arizona Cypress is another Christmas tree grown on many Choose & Cut farms in North Carolina. It has silvery-green to grey-blue foliage and upright branches. Immature foliage is needle-like. Mature leaves are scale-like, closely overlapping each other and encircling the stem. While some people describe the odor as citrusy or minty others find it to be less pleasant. As with other cypresses and cedars, Arizona Cypress and its cultivars are subject to rapid drying and are therefore sold as Choose & Cut trees. Two varieties commonly grown as Christmas trees are Carolina Sapphire and Blue Ice both of which have a whitish-blue color to the foliage.

Field of large, glossy, dark green, Fraser fir Christmas trees

Fraser fir, the predominant species of Christmas tree grown in North Carolina

taken by Jill Sidebottom

Determining the Freshness of Your Selection

As important to selecting a tree for its appearance is choosing one that is fresh. Fresh trees generally contain nearly as much water as when they were standing in the field. Even in direct sunlight, foliage of a fresh tree will feel cool to the touch because of its water content. Fresh trees will generally weigh more than a dry neighbor of equivalent size (you can test this by lifting trees to be compared).

Fresh trees keep their natural color. Dry foliage will often get a pale grey-green or yellow-green cast compared to fresher trees. Of course, tree color changes by species and what a dry tree looks like will change as well. Another way to think about this distinction would be that fresh trees have vibrant color and dry trees look dull in comparison.

On fresh trees, branches and needles remain limber rather than becoming stiff or brittle and dry.

Fresh trees hold their needles. If you shake the tree you are looking at, some needles almost always drop off. It is normal for old brown needles lodged inside the tree to drop, but green needles from outer branches should not fall. Shake the tree and look to see what falls from it. In a similar fashion, if you brush or lightly grasp a limb with your hand, few or no needles should drop or break off.

Another way to tell if a tree is fresh is how well it takes up water when you get it home. Fresh trees readily take up water when placed in a tree stand. A tree might consume more than a quart of water a day. Most importantly, when well-watered, fresh trees resist ignition from any source of spark or flame.

Sometimes, the best way to tell if your tree is fresh is to develop an overall impression of tree care at the retail lot in which you are shopping. Look for signs that the retailer pays attention to keeping trees fresh. A good retailer will be proud of their efforts to keep trees fresh.

If you are in a warm climate with no danger of a hard freeze, are trees stored with an obvious source of irrigation available? Are stored trees protected from full sunlight? Are trees displayed in tree stands that hold water? Is there mulch or a water holding surface on the ground? Does it feel cooler where trees are displayed?

If in a colder climate where freezing is possible, are the trees protected from prevailing winds?

Does the grower provide fresh cuts to the bottom of every tree sold? This is the most important service a retailer can provide because it improves water uptake at the consumer’s home.

If these details are present, the trees are probably fresh too. If these details are not present and some trees appear bleached-out in color or shower needles when touched, buyer beware!

Ask questions of your retailer to verify your impressions. When were the trees shipped? When were they cut before that? When is the next delivery expected? Are the trees irrigated (if in the South)? While sales persons are notorious for providing the easy answer, you might be able to discern an evasion. A careful answer may reflect their conscientious efforts to keep trees fresh. Keep in mind that proper care can balance an older delivery or cut date by preserving tree freshness. However, do not just rely on the retailer’s answers, but evaluate the condition of the tree you are interested in.

Hand holding needles that fell off a Christmas tree branch

A fresh tree should hold all of its green needles

taken by Jeff Owen

Caring for a Tree after Purchase

Once a tree is purchased, keeping it fresh requires regular watering and avoidance of high temperatures.

If the tree is bought several days before it is to be decorated, it should be stored outside in a cool, shaded area or in an unheated garage. If the tree came directly from the place of purchase where a fresh cut was made on the trunk, the butt can be placed in a bucket of water. Sprinkling or misting the tree with water will also help retain freshness, but the foliage should not be soaked. If the tree is protected from sunlight, the string or net wrapping can be left on the tree. Keeping it baled will ease its passage into the house for display.

If a tree has been stored out of water for three or more days, it is a good idea to make a fresh cut on the trunk prior to display. Remove a disk about half-inch thick to provide a clean fresh surface for water uptake. Use a tree stand with a large reservoir for water. Water should be kept in the tree stand throughout entire period that the tree is displayed. The water level in the stand should be checked and replenished daily. If the tree stand is allowed to dry out, the tree may not readily take up water again.

Do not use any Christmas tree preservatives, antitranspirants, or other additives in the water. University research has repeatedly shown that water additives are not needed and in many cases aggravate foliage drying and needle loss. This is true for both commercial products and home remedies regardless of what is reported by the media or on the internet.

The tree should be set up away from sources of heat. Cover any heat vents close to the tree. Turn off or shield any space heaters near the tree. Do not set a tree up near a fireplace. Even setting a tree up in front of a south-facing window can dry a tree out if it spends the day in full sun and is watered inadequately.

Make sure that the electrical circuit to be used for tree lights is adequate for the load you will be placing on it. You need to consider the entire electrical circuit including all linked receptacles. The load would include all lights and appliances on those receptacles, not just the tree lights. Old receptacles and wiring are a concern. Check with an electrician if you need help with this. Also, extension cords, power strips, and strings of lights should be checked for any signs of damage or wear. Replace hot incandescent light strings with new cool-burning LED lights. Tree lights should not be left on unless someone is at home, and should be turned off when the family goes to bed.

Christmas trees do not cause fires but will support combustion when dry. In test after test by underwriting labs, fire marshals, and university researchers, fresh well-watered trees do not ignite from a spark or momentary flame. Follow key practices to keep your tree from drying out and you can avoid it becoming a fire hazard. However, when trees do dry out, they should be removed before they create a fire hazard. Do not turn on Christmas tree lights if you think your tree has become dry.

Cutting off a thin disk from a tree trunk using a chainsaw

Before display, make a fresh cut on trees stored dry for more than 3 days

taken by Jeff Owen

Christmas tree stand with a large green plastic water bowl

Tree stands only keep trees fresh if there is water in the bowl

taken by Jeff Owen

Conclusion

The selection and decoration of a Christmas tree is an important part of many families' traditional holiday activities. By following a few simple guidelines, trees can be chosen and cared for in a manner that enhances the enjoyment of a special season.

If you have further questions about the freshness of the tree you purchased or have observed a particular problem, you can often talk to the retailer where you purchased your tree. Other sources of information about Christmas trees include NC State University, your NC Extension county center, and state and national Christmas tree associations.

Authors

Forestry
Area Extension Specialist (Christmas Trees)
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: April 23, 2014

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