Selecting Christmas Trees
17 November 2004
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
I know you have not even had your Thanksgiving dinner yet but I always say it is good to be prepared. For many folks one of the first things on the to-do list after Thanksgiving is to pick out a Christmas tree.
The two most popular places to purchase Christmas trees are retail lots and choose-and-cut farms. There is also a small but growing mail order Christmas tree market in Virginia and surrounding states.
Retail lots often have a variety of tree species to choose from and they offer the convenience of quick, close to home shopping for people who have limited time to shop for a tree. Trees on retail lots are more expensive that cutting your own but we can rationalize this because of the convenience. Sometimes retail lots are run by local civic clubs, Boy Scouts, school groups, etc., and serve as moneymakers for those organizations.
Consumers should always check carefully for freshness of trees on retail lots. The length of time since cutting and the way the trees have been handled can greatly influence how well they will hold their needles and fragrance once they are put up in the home. A recent survey of retail lots in Virginia revealed that only 29% of the trees for sale were grown in Virginia. In the Richmond area, 85% of the trees for sale were grown out of state, while in the Tidewater area, 67% of the trees were not grown in Virginia. Just because a tree was not grown in Virginia does not mean that it is not a fresh, high-quality tree. All trees on retail lots should be checked carefully, regardless of origin.
The Christmas tree industry participates in the agricultural marketing programs of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). Trees for sale that carry the logo Virginia Fresh are certified to be grown in Virginia and to meet the highest standards for Christmas tree quality. If this logo is displayed where you purchase your trees, you can be sure you are buying a locally grown, high-quality tree.
Choose-and-cut farms provide much more than just a Christmas tree. In addition to a tree, consumers are also treated to an outdoor recreation experience. Christmas trees are grown on farms, which always provide the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and the out-of-doors. Most farms have areas or rows of trees marked for harvest, and consumers are free to wander about, look at all the trees, and select one for cutting. Farmers will often provide hand saws or they will cut down the tree and haul it out of the field for you. At many farms, it is possible to pre-tag a tree earlier in the season and then go out at Christmastime and harvest it.
Choose-and-cut farmers will often have cut trees of differing species available for sale, as well as other products such as wreaths and roping. It is not unusual for choose-and-cut farms to offer other services such as wagon or sleigh rides, seasonal foods and drinks, and tree baling and loading. Trees purchased at choose-and-cut farms are usually cheaper than at retail lots and, of course, there is no need to question the freshness of a tree that you cut down.
To find out where choose-and-cut farms are located, it is a good idea to watch for newspaper ads at the beginning of the holiday season. Each year VDACS provides a listing of choose-and-cut farms in the state. See their web page (http://www.vdacs.state.va.us/trees/index.html) or ask your local county Extension Agent to provide you with a copy of this list.
A number of Christmas tree growers are now offering mail-order services, whereby a consumer can order a tree, generally of a certain species and size. The tree is then packed fresh in a special box and shipped directly to the consumer. Recently, major mail-order catalog companies have begun to carry Christmas trees, often featuring Fraser fir trees grown in the Southeast. Of course, these trees are the most expensive, but this method of purchase provides the ultimate in convenience to the consumer. Although the mail order business is now small, it is a growing business around the country.
Some consumers are interested in purchasing living, balled-and-burlapped Christmas trees that can be used as landscape trees after Christmas. This way of enjoying a Christmas tree has become especially popular in Virginia, where the late-December or early-January climate is often conducive to tree planting. Living Christmas trees can be purchased at retail lots, choose-and-cut farms, and many nurseries and garden centers.
There are many different species of Christmas trees normally sold in Virginia, but the most popular are the eastern white pine, Fraser fir, Scotch pine, and Norway spruce. Fraser fir is one of the best species in terms of needle retention and fragrance, while the Norway spruce has the least desirable characteristics.
Usually the tree farmer or the salesperson at the retail lot can identify the Christmas tree species, but occasionally it is useful for the consumer to identify species. The key displayed in Figure 1 is useful for identifying the major Christmas tree species.
Christmas trees are available in a variety of sizes, and to properly assess the size of tree needed, it is best to consider where in the house the tree will be kept. Most standard rooms will easily accommodate a 7-foot tree; however, some rooms with cathedral ceilings can accommodate a much larger tree. Consumers can expect to pay a premium for oversized trees. There are not many large trees on the market and the cost of producing large trees of 10 feet or more becomes extraordinarily high. These trees are hard to shear and to protect from insects, diseases, and bird and animal damage, and they take up a lot of room in the field.
On many lots and farms, trees are priced according to height, so it becomes especially important to buy a tree of the right size. Some sellers also offer tabletop trees, which are relatively inexpensive and may be a good alternative for a small apartment, dorm room, etc.
It is very important for consumers to be able to tell whether or not a tree is fresh. In general, each tree should have a healthy, green appearance without a large number of dead or browning needles. Needles should appear fresh and flexible and should not come off in your hand if you gently stroke a branch. A useful trick is to lift a cut tree a couple of inches off the ground and let it drop on the cut butt. Green needles should not drop off the tree. A few dried, inner needles may fall, but certainly the outer, green needles should not be affected.
Next week caring for your live or cut Christmas tree.
For more information about landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.