Know Your Nursery: Know your Christmas trees
If you celebrate Christmas and have purchased your tree (or are still contemplating which tree you want), you may be overwhelmed by the options of locally-grown trees available! We’re here to shed some light on the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania conifers.
Historically, there are a limited number of conifers that grow naturally here in southwestern Pennsylvania. Just to the east on high elevation sites grow some remnants of the boreal forest. To the north in New York and further into Canada where the boreal forest starts are dozens of conifer species. When shopping locally for a Christmas tree, you may find a wide range of species, this article will discuss the pros and cons and some of the characteristics of the most common species.
Pines: a lot of folks call any conifer with needles a pine, however pines are just one group of species and are very different than spruces and firs. Pines tend to have longer needles 2–5” with those needles grouped into bundles. Our native eastern white pine is sometimes sold as a tree for the holidays, has longest needles at 4–5” that are grouped in bundles of 5. These trees are soft and can have a somewhat shaggy appearance with the long needles. Some other pines sold locally are Scotch pine and Virginia pine which both have shorter 2–3” needles and a lighter green color.
Firs: several species of fir are sold for the holidays and are usually the most expensive since they are slower to grow. Firs have short needles ½‑1”long, stiff but not sharp and very dark green on the upper surface. Firs tend to hold their needles longer than other cut trees and have a wonderful aroma of pine but sometimes also notes of citrus. Balsam and Frasier firs are the most common in our area. Doulas-fir is also commonly sold, however it is not a true fir, it belongs to another genus altogether. Its needles are slightly longer, softer, pointed at the tips.
Spruces: Norway and blue spruce are sometimes offered for sale. Spruces have very sharp pointed needles ½‑1 ¼” long. They can be hard to decorate due to the sharpness of the needles and they are likely to drip sap from any cut or broken branch tips.
Pennsylvania is the 4th largest grower of Christmas trees in the US and Allegheny County still has a dozen Christmas tree farms producing the best smelling part of the holidays. Many of the trees sold locally start out as small seedlings produced by bare root tree nurseries. They are then bought by farmers and planted out. It then takes several years of care to get that tree ready for market. Most trees are sheared to increase branch density and create a perfect conical shape. Shearing can be done by hand with pruners and a shearing knife or with hedge shears.