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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Know your Christmas Trees

Once Thanksgiving is behind us, there comes the search for that perfect Christmas tree. Tree farms become busy places as people reserve their favorite pick with that telltale "taken" tag. 

The idea of symbolizing evergreen trees goes way back into history. Because evergreens stay green and don't drop their needles, with the arrival of the winter solstice people would look to the evergreen tree as a symbol of life's triumph over death. In addition to the evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe were also collected and brought into the home to ward off evil spirits and show hope for the forthcoming spring.

Our modern Christmas tree evolved from the early traditions of the Germans and Scandinavians during the Middle Ages.  It is said that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. The story goes that around 1500, Martin Luther was so impressed by the beauty of snow covered evergreens shimmering in the moonlight, that he set up a little tree indoors, and decorated it with candles to honor Christ's birth. The balsam fir twigs resemble crosses, so it is said that perhaps that is how the firs became so popular as Christmas trees.

History has it that the Christmas tree tradition came to the United States with the Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio. The custom didn't take off very quickly. The Puritans in New England didn't even celebrate Christmas and throughout New England, schools remained open, with a penalty for those who chose to stay home in celebration. 

Supposedly, the Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them on the street. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree and within 20 years the custom was nearly universal.

The business of Christmas tree farms didn't take off until the hard economic times of the depression. Nurserymen needed to come up with another means for selling their evergreens, as people just didn't have the money for landscaping. How brilliant to begin cultivating trees, and pruning them for the attractive, symmetrical shape desired over wild trees.

Only six species account for about 90 percent of the nation's Christmas tree industry. Scotch pine ranks first with about 40 percent of the market, followed with Douglas fir which accounts for about 34 percent.

Firs (Abies Species) are very popular because they don't shed their needles as the tree dries out and retain that wonderful smell of the outdoors.

Fraser Fir is a favorite. Its 1" needles are silvery-green and soft to the touch, and being there is space between the branches, the Fraser is easy to decorate. The branches are firm which is ideal to hold heavier ornaments without them sliding off.

Noble Fir is a deep green and a very lovely branch shape. This feature makes them very desirable for making into fresh wreaths. Spacing and strength of the branches also make this tree easy to hand and hold ornaments.

Douglass Firs are beautiful and popular trees with their soft shiny green needles. The problem with this type is that they tend to be sheared so perfectly into the conical shape, too little space is left between branches for the decorations.

Colorado Blue Spruce is beautiful with its blue, silvery foliage and strong limbs. Spruces are good for those heavier ornaments. Just be aware that the spruces are much more prickly than the firs.
The Meyer Spruce, native to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, is another type of spruce tree known for its hardiness.

 Norway Spruce are great if you only want to have the tree in the house for a week or two. This tree type doesn't hold its needles well and it is important to keep it properly watered to maintain some needle retention.
The most popular in Europe, and usually the cheapest, the Norwegian capital city Oslo, provides the cities of New York, London (the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree), Edinburgh and Washington D.C. with a Norway Spruce, which is placed at the most central square of each city.

Eastern White Pines are beautiful with their long, feathery needles, but may be too flexible to support many decorations. Pines are popular to use as garlands, wreaths and centerpieces.

Scotch Pines have wonderful needle retention and being they resist drying out, last indoors for the duration of the holiday season. However, their needles are very sharp, so care has to be taken during handling.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree,  Manhattan, New York City