Finding the right Christmas tree for your home

Photo of Balsam Fir

It's that time of year! We asked asked former Rural Forestry Program Leader John DuPlissis for his advice on finding the perfect tree for your holiday celebrations!

Do you have any recommendations on what kind of tree makes the best Christmas tree?  

Christmas trees tend to be a matter of preference and tradition for most families. The look, the smell, the way ornaments hang and can be seen, the way the needles stay on or don't stay on the tree, are all things that I hear people talk about when they consider what kind of tree to buy. It is strange but true that people tend to be very strongly attached to a particular species because of the emotions and memories attached to the family experience of cutting or buying a tree, hanging the ornaments, seeing gifts under the tree; essentially all of the things that are best about spending time together as a family during the holiday season. The Christmas tree is a constant and an endearing reminder of special family memories. 

 Which is better - an artificial or natural Christmas tree?

In a 2009 study, Ellipsos, a Montreal-based consulting firm, conducted a comparative life cycle assessment in an effort to determine the environmental impact of both types. The study concluded, “natural tree production has positive impacts on climate change because natural trees sequester CO2." In all fairness to the authors and the report, they did note if you kept and used your artificial tree for more than 20 years then the artificial tree is a more sustainable option.   

Obviously I am biased, but the evidence is clear a natural tree is probably a better option. But let's take this one step further. If you are interested in locally produced goods, sustainable development, and sustainable forest management, then I would urge you to consider buying from a local "choose and cut" operation that is certified sustainably managed. Many Christmas tree producers are members of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and proudly display their sign. Christmas tree producers are certified by ATFS if they are in compliance with their Standards of Sustainability, which includes m anaging their lands, "to protect wildlife habitat and watersheds, to conserve soil and to provide recreation    for their communities" while producing Christmas trees. 

 Which species makes the best Christmas tree??? 

Choice and selection of trees has always been somewhat regional based on what could be grown in the local area. You could usually guess what region of the United States a person was from based on the kind of species they preferred for a Christmas tree. Folks from the Northeastern United States tend to prefer Balsam Fir with White Pine running a close second. Folks in the lake states also like Balsam Fir but Red (Norway) and Scotch Pine run a close second and Spruce trees start to show up. As you move west Frasier Fir and Douglas Fir are popular and Colorado Blue Spruce starts becoming more popular. I would hazard a guess it would be possible to find any and all of these trees on a tree lot in the coming weeks as most Christmas tree producers try to meet the needs of their clients. But which species makes the best Christmas tree? If you don't already have a strong family tradition and you are willing to try something new here are a few thoughts to consider. 

First and foremost, how important is the smell of the tree to you? The firs (and to a lesser extent the pine trees) have a strong and pleasant odor people enjoy. Just take a look at the shops that sell scented candles at this time of year and see what their best sellers are. Spruces also tend to have a strong odor but many folks do not find it near as pleasant. 

Do you like to see your ornaments? Each year my wife and I have purchased ceramic ornaments that are special to us and our family. These ornaments tend to be fairly large and heavy and we like to see them.  So we prefer a Christmas tree with short needles and relatively strong branches. Firs and  often meet this need better than pines. Pines will often bend and droop under the weight of heavier ornaments and may not be the best fit if this is important to you. 

Another issue for most folks is needle retention and needle dryness (whether the tree is fire prone).  Based on a recent study done by Dr. Les Werner at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point where they evaluated water uptake, sap flow, and needle retention, Frasier Fir consistently ranked the highest.  Based on the data collected they would rank these species in the following order... 

  •  Frasier Fir 
  •  Balsam Fir 
  •  Scotch Pine 
  •  Black Hills Spruce (White Spruce variant)
Where can I find a "choose and cut" Christmas tree producer? 

Follow this link to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s website where you will find a list of "choose and cut" farms with driving directions, hours, and what kinds of trees they have available.