Christmas tree know-how: Choosing the best variety
by Ron Wolford
November 30, 2014

Having a little knowledge about Christmas tree varieties will make your quest for the “perfect” tree an easier one, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“When I was growing up in Peoria, my dad would take us out to the woods on my grandparent’s farm near Hanna City to cut down a Christmas tree. We didn’t think much about needle retention or fragrance when we were tromping through the snow to find a tree,” said Ron Wolford. “We just wanted a green tree that would fit in our living room. Today most tree farms and tree lots have a variety of trees available.”

Wolford provided the following brief descriptions of popular Christmas tree varieties:

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) – short, flat, long-lasting needles that are rounded at the tip and are 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches long; nice, dark green color with silvery cast and fragrant. Named for the balsam or resin found in blisters on bark. Resin is used to make microscope slides and was sold like chewing gum; used to treat wounds in Civil War.

Canaan fir (Abies balsamea var.phanerolepis) – soft, short, bluish to dark green needles, 1/2 to 1 1/4 inches long, needles silver on underside. Strong branches and open growing pattern. Good needle retention and fragrance.

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) – good fragrance; holds blue to dark green; 1- to 1-1/2-inch needles; needles have one of the best aromas among Christmas trees when crushed; branches are spreading and drooping. After being cut, the Douglas fir will last three to four weeks. Named after David Douglas who studied the tree in the 1800s; good conical shape; can live for a thousand years.

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) – dark green, flattened needles that are 1/2 to 1 inch long; good needle retention; nice scent; pyramid-shaped, strong branches that turn upward. The Fraser fir was named for botanist John Fraser who explored the southern Appalachians in the late 1700s.

Grand fir (Adies grandis) – shiny, dark green needles about 1 to 1-1/2 inches long; the needles, when crushed, give off a citrusy smell. Will last three to four weeks after being cut.

Noble fir (Abies procera) – 1-inch-long needles, bluish green with a silvery appearance; has short, stiff branches; great for heavier ornaments; keeps well; used to make wreaths, door swags, and garland. With good care, the tree will last for six weeks after being cut.

Concolor fir (Abies concolor) – blue-green needles are 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches long; nice shape and good aroma, a citrus scent; good needle retention. In nature, the concolor fir can live to 350 years.

Austrian fir (Pinus nigra) – dark green needles, 4 to 6 inches long; retains needles well; moderate fragrance.

Red pine (Pinus resinosa) – dark green, 4- to 6-inch-long needles; big and bushy.

Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) – most common Christmas tree; stiff branches hold heavy ornaments well; stiff, dark green, 1-inch long needles; holds needles for four weeks; needles will stay on even when dry; has open appearance and more room for ornaments; will support heavy ornaments; keeps aroma throughout the season. Introduced in the United States by European settlers.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) – dark green needles are 1-1/2 to 3 inches long in twisted pairs; strong branches hold heavy ornaments; strong aromatic pine scent; a popular southern Christmas tree.

White pine (Pinus strobus) – soft, blue-green needles, 2- to 5-inch-long needles in bundles of five; retains needles throughout the holiday season; very full appearance; little or no fragrance; less allergic reactions as compared to more fragrant trees; doesn’t hold heavy ornaments well. Largest pine in U.S.; state tree of Michigan and Maine; slender branches will support fewer and smaller decorations as compared to Scotch pine.

Blue spruce (Picea pungens) – dark green to powdery blue; very stiff needles, 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches long; good form; will drop needles in a warm room; symmetrical, but best among species for needle retention; branches are stiff and will support many heavy decorations. The blue spruce is the state tree of Utah and Colorado, and it can live in nature 600 to 800 years.

Norway spruce (Picea abies) – needles 1/2 to 1 inch long; shiny, dark green. Needle retention is poor without proper care; strong fragrance; nice conical shape. The Norway spruce is very popular in Europe.

White spruce (Picea glauca) – needles 1/2 to 3/4 inch long; green to bluish green, short, stiff needles; crushed needles have an unpleasant odor; good needle retention, holds ornaments well. The white spruce is the state tree of South Dakota.

Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii) – dark green in color, no aroma, has a good shape, will not support large ornaments, very popular in the southeast United States.

“Whatever variety of Christmas tree you choose for your home, proper watering and keeping your house as moist and cool as possible will help lengthen enjoyment of your tree and safety,” Wolford said.

For more information, visit the Christmas Trees & More website at

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