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Confused about Christmas Trees? You're not the only one. Douglas Justice takes the mystery out of choosing the perfect tree for the holidays.
When it comes to Christmas trees, people fall into three camps: those who love cut trees, those satisfied with an artificial tree and those who demand a living, breathing tree. I grew up in a family of cut-tree traditionalists.
My parents’ families participated in the annual ritual of going into the forest to find a suitable tree, cutting it down and dragging it back to the house. This kind of “Norman Rockwell” tradition can melt the icy cynicism of even hardened urban grownups.
In December I’m drawn to Christmas-tree lots with their hastily built 2 x 4 rack fences, billowy green rows of trussed-up trees and fragrance of cedar boughs and cut pine, Douglas and true fir.
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Evergreen trees have been brought into homes during the winter solstice for thousands of years. They remind us that there is life and hope; renewal, like lengthening days, is just around the corner. While we celebrate life, however, ecological concerns and tighter space in modern homes have forced lovers of Christmas trees to consider the third option: living trees.
Until a few years ago, locally available living Christmas trees were nearly always heavy, field-grown plants. Most were stiff, sharp-needled Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) that nurseries had not been able to sell to their eastern customers. By December, rootballs sodden and sagging and burlap disintegrating, they would be hefted into containers and top-dressed with a layer of bark. This made a fairly presentable product, and customers were generally pleased until they had to drag one up a flight of stairs.
Nurseries and garden centres still carry field-grown Christmas trees, but now a wide variety of evergreen coniferous trees are grown in plastic pots in lightweight soil-less media. Beyond weight, the difference between container- and field-grown trees is primarily in foliage and branching density – container plants are not usually as compact.
When shopping, look for straight stems, balanced branching and a single central leader with a healthy, unbroken tip. Check for signs of pests or poor culture, such as an abundance of yellowing, brown or distorted needles, or unusually bare or crooked stems. Many large pruning cuts usually indicate the tree has been neglected or extensively manipulated. Some initial training is often necessary with young trees, but excessive pruning on older plants should be a red flag. The soil (or soil-less medium) should be uniformly moist (not sopping) and smell sweet, and the tree should feel well anchored in the soil, not loose or sloppy. A sour or sulphurous smell from the pot usually indicates root rot, which could be a continuing problem.
If you live in an area where winter temperatures are normally below freezing, you may not be able to tell if roots have been damaged. It will soon become apparent once the tree has thawed in your living room, however, so purchase plants from a dealer who will guarantee the quality of the stock.
Keep in mind that plants are completely inactive in winter and the tree should be kept as cool and moist as possible to prevent breaking dormancy. A warm, dry indoor environment is unhealthy for an outdoor tree, so plan to keep it in the house for no more than a week or so.
After the decorations have been put away and the tree removed from the house, ensure that the soil around the roots is evenly moist – watering the tree if necessary – before gradually introducing it back to the cold. Either have a ready-made hole to plant the tree into, or pile up a thick layer of sawdust around the rootball or container to insulate the roots until the ground has thawed.
If you live in an area that is zone 7 or warmer, you can keep the tree in a container and use it again the following year. Choose a tree with a moderate growth rate and reliable reputation for container culture, as well as a tolerance for pests and diseases. Avoid Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which tends to grow too quickly in containers. Some spruce (Picea species) are prone to aphids and mites. Unchecked, these pests will disfigure trees, especially where winters are warmer.
The true firs (Abies species) are fast becoming the gold standard in cut Christmas trees. All have lush, beautifully curved, blunted needles, symmetrical whorls of branches and a wonderful fragrance. When young (generally smaller than 1m/3 ft.), most species make excellent container plants but will become stunted and eventually decline with restricted root conditions. Abies koreana (Korean fir) cultivars are common in retail nurseries and are ornamentally outstanding, but they usually lack symmetry.
Pines are among the best choices for containers, though many species lack the classic, dark-green, densely layered look. Five-needle pines, particularly when young, are suitably pyramidal, and a few kinds are compact enough to make excellent Christmas trees. Pinus cembra (Arolla pine), Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ (a particularly blue and conical cultivar of limber pine) and P. strobus ‘Nana’ (dwarf eastern white pine) are excellent choices with soft, blue-green needles. Two-needled pines, such as P. nigra (Austrian pine) and P. sylvestris (Scots pine), and the interior native P. contorta var. latifolia (lodgepole) and coastal P. contorta var. contorta (shore pine), are the most resilient of all conifers. They tolerate not only sudden wide swings in temperature and humidity, but also root constriction, periodic flooding and drought. In other words, perfect for the job.
A number of upright junipers (particularly Juniperus scopulorum cultivars), cypresses (Cupressus species) and false cypresses (primarily cultivars of Lawson cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) could work in a pinch. Even the common hedging cedar, Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ (emerald cedar), makes a serviceable foliage column or narrow cone. They lend themselves to being draped with garlands, but some find the aroma of their resinous foliage overpowering and their branches too flexible and widely spaced for heavier ornaments.
The rarely offered Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) might also tolerate a temporary indoor stint. It makes a show-stopping, near-perfect cone, clothed to its base with long, glossy needles. The needles are arranged along the branches like the spokes of an open umbrella and are burnished bronze-green in winter. When grown with full sun, even moisture and fertile soil with good drainage, Sciadopitys will maintain its dense conical habit for years.
Another unusual but outstanding conifer is mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), which is native to southern B.C. This narrow evergreen is available in both green- and blue-needled forms and requires cool conditions and evenly moist soil in full sun.
I’ve seen less conventional fare decorated at Christmas – indoor palms, yuccas, weeping figs and even spindly, tall dracaenas. There’s no reason why hardy broadleaf evergreens can’t also be used. A potted camellia, waxleaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum) or wild-type Japanese holly (Ilex crenata f. latifolia) makes a green statement as much as any conifer. Each displays tough waxy leaves on upright stems and adaptability to temporary changes in environment. There are several camellias that naturally produce flowers in midwinter in the milder parts of southern B.C. (such as Camellia sasanqua and C. transnokoensis); bringing these inside at Christmas time will encourage buds to open early (who needs decorations?). Keep in mind that warm indoor temperatures will quickly dry the soil, so keep flowering plants as cool as possible.
There are many choices, especially for those willing to try something less conventional. For me, a Christmas tree has to be big enough to accommodate a number of sentimentally valuable ornaments. It has to have sparkly lights and be sturdy enough to withstand the repeated molestations of a small cat. It has to be a tree that will continue to grow and become something even more significant when planted out in the ground. Oh, and it has to smell like a Christmas tree.
Click on a link below to get more information and view an image of a particular tree.
The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (view our climate zone chart):
Abies koreana (Korean fir) – zones 5-8 • Camellia sasanqua and C. transnokoensis (camellia) – zones 8-10 • Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Lawson cypress) – zones 5-9 • Cupressus species (cypresses) – zones 7-9 • Ilex crenata f. latifolia (Japanese holly) – zones 5-8 • Juniperus scopulorum cultivars – zones 4-7 • Ligustrum japonicum (waxleaf privet) – zones 7-10 • Picea pungens (Colorado spruce) – zones 3-8 • Pinus cembra (Arolla pine), P. flexilis ‘Vandewolf’s Pyramid’ (limber pine), P. strobus ‘Nana’ (dwarf eastern white pine) – zones 4-9 • Pinus contorta var. contorta (shore pine) – zones 6-8 • Pinus contorta var. latifolia (lodgepole pine) – zones 2-7 • Pinus nigra (Austrian pine) – zones 5-8 • Pinus sylvestris (Scots pine) – zones 3-7 • Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) – zones 5-7 • Sciadopitys verticillata (umbrella pine) – zones 5-9 • Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ (emerald cedar) – zones 3-8 • Tsuga mertensiana (mountain hemlock) – zones 4-8
Douglas Justice is the associate director and curator of collections at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research.
SOURCES trees and containers supplied by GardenWorks, other trees supplied by Cedar Rim Nurseries, Peels Nursery, Linnaea Nursery