Each year, thousands of people head out to the fields to choose the right Christmas tree.
Often the centerpiece of a home’s holiday decor, these firs and pines have become as much of a tradition as gift-giving and egg nog.
The fragrant conifers take more than just planting to become that ideal tree, and unlike the tradition, the types of Christmas trees on the market have changed over time.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, consumers in the U.S. bought more than 28 million farm-grown trees in 2009.
The average cost of a farm-grown tree that year was $40.92. This year, the association estimates farmers planted roughly 41 million trees nationwide to replace those harvested and prepare for future demand.
And in the Northeast, holiday revelers might be pleased to know that there’s more of a variety here than in other places in the country.
There’s more than 35 different species of conifers grown for holiday decorations across the country, said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the NCTA.
Of those, there’s between 12 and 15 that are available in the Northeast, he said.
“Some species are temperature tolerant, some are soil-specific, some are elevation specific. There’s a lot of different varieties of plants that can be grown in different parts of North America,” Dungey said.
For picky shoppers, that means an easier time getting the right tree to match this year’s interior decor or trying something new.
“Everybody likes something different and unique, and nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Everybody likes something different and that’s really kind of the key, especially if you use a farm-grown tree. The 17,000 tree farms in the U.S. alone, I think, do a good job in providing that,” Dungey said.
The National Christmas Tree Association’s website includes a “History of Christmas Trees” section with a timeline provided by The Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem, N.H.
According to the timeline, the first written record of a decorated Christmas tree comes from Riga, Latvia. It was the year 1510 when local merchants adorned a tree with roses, danced around it and then set it on fire
In 1530, merchants in Alsace, France, then German territory, sold trees that were placed in homes without decorations.
The first Christmas trees were introduced to the U.S. by German settlers in the 1800s, beginning with table-top trees and leading to trees reaching the ceiling.
In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm is believed to have been opened in New Jersey by W.V. McGalliard, who planted 25,000 Norway spruce on his farm. That same year, Theodore Roosevelt sought to stop the practice out of concern for forest destruction.
Today, between 25 and 30 million Christmas trees are sold in the U.S., most of them from Christmas tree plantations, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
In the past 63 years, since the Eaton family began selling white spruces and balsam firs at Bob’s Trees in Galway, different live tree species grown for holiday decor have come and gone.
Years ago, the biggest draw was the Douglas fir, a soft, weak-branched tree that was called the “Cadillac” of Christmas trees.
Today, it’s being phased out altogether.
“It’s hard to grow the Douglas, very, very hard; most people have given up,” said David Eaton, 69, of Bob’s Trees, whose father started selling Christmas trees in Galway back in 1947.
The Scotch pine was once a very popular tree as well, but it’s tough to grow it above eight feet and the tree has become the target of fungi and other organisms.
“We haven’t tried to grow Scotch pine here in probably 15 years,” Eaton said.
Today, the newest draw is the Canaan fir, a tree characterized by a fragrance similar to the balsam fir and needle retention of the Fraser fir.
“It’s a gorgeous tree,” Eaton said.
Though it smells great and holds its needles, the Canaan is a lighter color and doesn’t have the deep, dark green hue like other trees, he said.
There’s a lot more that goes into farming Christmas trees than just planting. Eaton said the trees are sheared every year once they reach 5.5 feet in height. Trimming lasts about four years, until the proper shape is achieved.
Trimming, which begins in July and runs through mid-October, helps bring out the fullness and bushiness many look for in their Christmas tree, Eaton said.
The average live tree used for decoration is about 12 years old.
Too much rain can hurt the growth of all Christmas tree varieties, but the Fraser fir is most susceptible to excessive rain.
“The Fraser fir is very temperamental,” Eaton said.
Christmas trees are grown specifically to be decorated, and the Eatons at Bob’s Trees plant on a roughly 14-to-15-year rotation.
“We plant every year just as much room as we can get ready,” Eaton said.
That means clearing and plowing a field for two years, planting grass and, in the spring, planting trees.
Each of several varieties of live Christmas trees have their own peculiarities:
u Fraser fir: Light fragrance, strongest branches among common Christmas trees; longest-lasting, holds its needles anywhere from six to eight weeks, dark, blue-green color.
u Balsam fir: Strong fragrance, slightly soft branches and soft needles; lasts up to four weeks in the house as long as it’s kept watered; rich, green color.
u Blue spruce: Fairly fragrant aroma, strong branches and sharp, prickly needles; needle retention among the best, attractive blue color.
u White spruce: Strong aroma often likened to ammonia-like smell, sometimes referred to as “skunk” or “cat” spruce; stiff needles drop quickly; lasts up to two weeks, bluish-green color.
u Canaan fir: Favorable aroma like Balsam fir, good needle retention like Fraser fir; light green color.