Choosing the Right Tree
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Turkey day is past and next comes the Christmas holiday. My family is fascinatingly quick to turn their attention to finding the perfect tree to add that holiday feel and smell to the house. Being a lover of trees, few things interest me more about the holidays than scouring a scenic farm searching through the numerous options. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will feature all you would ever need to know about Christmas trees.
While we are not in the true heart of Christmas tree country, Virginia is a major producer of quality trees that get shipped across the nation. The biggest Christmas tree producing county in the state is Grayson County, in the southwest portion of the state. Grayson County borders the number one tree producing county in the nation, Ashe County, North Carolina. Ashe County harvests over 2 million trees per year edging Clackamas County, Oregon for the top spot in the country. The other major producing states are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine. All these states share some similarities that make them prime locations for production. They all have certain climate, topographical and soil factors that make them ideal for certain species of trees. A few factors are similar for all variety of trees. Generally, they prefer well drained soil on a moderate slope with soils having a 5.5 to 6.5 ph. Once these site requirements are met then any variety is an option.
Fir trees are the number one type of tree produced in the United States. They are identified by their flat, soft needles that run singly along the twigs and branches. They are also preferred by tree growers because of their strong branches that are perfect for holding ornaments. The most coveted fir is the Fraser fir. This species is native to the highlands of North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia from 4000 to 6000 ft in elevation. This tree is adored by the Christmas tree industry due to its hardy nature which allows it to be shipped around the country. It also has excellent needle retention and a lovely fragrance. Balsam fir is native to the eastern U.S. and can be found at the highest elevations of Virginia and West Virginia. Balsam firs prefer cooler climates than Fraser fir. Balsam is known for its green color and pleasant smell. Douglas fir is the most commonly planted tree in the western portion of the U.S. and is adored due to its lovely scent. Another western species that can be found at tree farms across Virginia is concolor fir. This species prefers a warmer climate that makes Virginia a good growing area. It distinguishes itself from the other firs by its silvery blue color and longer needles (1.5-2.5 in).
Pine trees are commonly planted in Virginia due to their superior growth rates and ability to be established in a wide variety of soil types and elevations. They have great needle retention and a pleasing scent. The most common pine used in the Christmas tree trade is the eastern white pine. They have a lovely silver-green color, soft needles and good needle retention. Those that love bushy, full trees tend to gravitate to white pines. Scotch pines, native to Europe, have been commonly planted in the U.S. for the past century. They are hardy and can withstand a variety of climates. It is a preferred pine species because of its stiff branches and water retention after being cut. It also has a long lingering scent that lasts through the holiday season.
For those that like to enter their wood lot and cut a naturally grown tree, there are a few preferred varieties. Eastern red-cedar are a good choice in the southern U.S. It has a good shape, strong fragrance and a shiny green color with prickly needles. Eastern white pine can be found in some wood lots in Virginia but is more common as you head north. For the perfect “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree look, I recommend our native Virginia pine. It is found abundantly through our area and has good green-gray color and stiff branches.
You are now prepared to head to your favorite Christmas tree lot or cut-your-own farm and be a discerning buyer. We are blessed to be laden with good farms to explore in Nelson County so get your mug of cocoa and head out to the countryside and find the perfect tree to makes your holiday decorating complete.