The Christmas tree – or albero di natale, arbre de noël or sapin de noël, árbol de Navidad, árvore de natal, coeden nadolig, crann Nollag, jólatré, joulukuusi, juletre, julgran, kerstboom, Tannenbaum or Weihnachtsbaum, новогодняя елка and χριστουγεννιάτικο δέντρο – is a celebrated icon of Christmas around the world. It is perhaps the only time that most people really hug a tree as they struggle to get one through the front door!
A brief history of the Christmas tree
According to Wikipedia the first records of Christmas trees are from Northern Germany in the 15th Century. Trees were initially decorated with sweets (candies) and red paper. Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610 using real silver. The first record of Christmas trees in America was in 1747, where a tree was provided for children in a Moravian Church settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Prince Albert is credited with bringing the first Christmas Tree to the British royal family; an article appeared in Illustrated London News in 1848.
Top selling trees in North America
Results of one online poll, reveals that the top five ranking Christmas trees in the USA are led by Fraser Fir (33%), followed by Douglas Fir, Balsam Fir, Colorado Blue Spruce and, in fifth place, Scots Pine. The National Christmas Tree Association sell 25-30 million Christmas trees every year in North America. The trees are grown in Fifty states and in Canada, offering a green alternative to the plastic variety (of which 80% are made in China).
Perhaps the most famous Christmas tree in the US was harvested recently on 17th November, to be delivered to the White House. The US President will be receiving a 5.8m (19 foot) balsam fir, harvested from a farm near Neshkoro in Wisconsin (read story).
Top selling trees in Europe
In Europe the Nordman Fir is the most popular Christmas tree although recently the Fraser Fir has been increasingly available and is proving ever more popular. Denmark is the biggest European exporter of Christmas trees, and their association was famously fined in 2007 for operating a cartel (read more).
In Britain alone there are many hundreds of growers who specialise in growing Christmas trees. There are 320 members of the British Christmas Tree Growers association, who together sell 8 million trees a year (BCTGA website).
How to grow Christmas trees
Christmas tree growing can be a lucrative business but is unforgiving on quality, as second grade trees will not sell. Growing the trees is more like a slow agricultural crop than a fast forestry crop. A typical rotation is 5-7 years for standard sized trees, although some growers specialise in the tall trees sold for town centres and large buildings.
Site selection is important, particularly avoiding frost prone sites as buds can be damaged by severe late frosts. Soils should not be too acid, or heavy clay, chalk or very sandy. If too fertile the trees will grow too fast and be ‘leggy’, requiring expensive efforts to trim and encourage suitable form; a technique called “shearing”.
The crop must be protected from browsing mammals, whose activities will adversely affect tree form; rabbit and deer proof fencing is normally required. Sometimes insect pests will need to be controlled (Blue spruce is very prone to aphids) and specialist advice should be sought by growers.
Christmas trees are normally planted at 1x1m (10,000 per ha / 4200 per acre) or 1.2×1.2m (6900 per ha / 2900 per acre). Two or three year old trees are normally planted when dormant. Weed control is extremely important in following years, not only to ensure good tree survival and growth, but also to minimise competition that could lead to poor form on the tree’s lower branches.
Popular Christmas tree species
- Abies balsamea — Balsam Fir
- Abies concolor — White Fir
- Abies fraseri — Fraser Fir
- Abies procera — Noble Fir
- Cupressus arizonica — Arizona Cypress
- x Cupressocyparis leylandii —Leyland Cypress
- Juniperus virginiana — Eastern Red Cedar
- Picea abies — Norway Spruce
- Picea obovata — Siberian Spruce
- Picea pungens — Colorado Blue Spruce or Blue Spruce
- Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii — Douglas Fir
- Pinus contorta — Lodgepole Pine