Know Your Nursery: Know your Christmas trees

 In Blog, Heritage Nursery, 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. 

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