sealPurdue News

November 20, 1998

Pick the best Christmas tree variety for your home

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Stepping onto a corner Christmas tree lot can bring back unpleasant memories of Scout tree-identification merit badges. There are four kinds of pines, assorted firs, and the odd -- and expensive -- spruce, and you have to figure out which one will at least bring warmth and happiness to your home, if not peace and good will toward men.

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So what's the difference?

Daniel Cassens, professor of forestry at Purdue University and owner of a choose-and-cut Christmas tree business, said each variety of tree has advantages and disadvantages.

Scotch pine: Probably the most common Christmas tree in the Midwest, the Scotch pine is easy to grow, easy to ship and easy to maintain as a Christmas tree after it is cut. Scotch pines have dark green needles and their stiff branches can hold heavy ornaments. They also don't drop needles easily, even if the tree becomes dry. "Scotch pine has become the traditional tree because it is easy to grow and maintain, and it is well accepted in the market place," Cassens said.

White pine: A close second to the Scotch pine in popularity as a Christmas tree is the white pine. This tree is known for its soft, long needles (up to five inches) that give the tree almost a fur-like appearance. Although many people prefer the soft appearance of the white pine needles, heavy ornaments tend to slide off the branches. The trees are usually a blue-green or silver-green color.

"White pine probably doesn't hold heavy ornaments very well -- that's the biggest drawback that it has," Cassens said. "But a really full white pine can be a beautiful tree."

Fraser fir: The trendiest Christmas tree in the past few years has been the Fraser fir, Cassens said. "Over the past five years there's been a consumer preference for Fraser fir, a native of higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains, and commercial growers in North Carolina and Michigan have developed that market," he said.

Fraser firs are popular because of the Appalachian, down-home Christmas ambiance they bring into a home, and also because the widely-spaced branches display ornaments well. The trees also are almost always a near-prefect pyramid shape, and have a great fragrance.

Cassens said that most Fraser fir trees sold in Indiana are shipped from out of state, although some local plantations of Fraser fir are beginning to mature. "It's horribly tough to grow in Indiana," Cassens said, "but it will grow here. On my tree farm we've got trees up to 12 feet tall, but we've also killed a lot of trees, and there are a number of people in the Midwest who have ended up with nothing when they've tried to grow them."

Douglas fir: Here's a bit of Cliff Claven-type trivia to spring on the teen-ager selling trees at the corner market: Douglas fir trees aren't really fir trees at all. They're a completely different species that has been commonly misnamed.

Douglas fir trees are a popular Christmas tree in the Pacific Northwest, and -- another bit of trivia -- they are the variety of Christmas trees most commonly shipped to Hawaii. The needles are soft and dark green. In the wild these trees can grow for up to 1,000 years because they have thick bark that allows them to withstand forest fires; the tree in your home will likely be seven to 10 years old.

"The Douglas fir isn't quite as sensitive to grow as the Fraser fir," Cassens said. "These trees seem to be more of a perfect cone shape and can be full, but not so full that the ornaments slide off. The branches are open enough that ornaments can be seen."

Both the Fraser fir and the Douglas fir trees are usually considerably more expensive than pine trees, Cassens said.

Blue spruce: Blue spruce are becoming a popular Christmas tree because of their color, and also because they are often used as "living Christmas trees" that can be planted in the landscape after the holidays. The needles on spruce trees are very sharp -- in fact, the Latin name for the trees, Picea pungens , refers to "puncture."

"Spruce trees tend to drop their needles," Cassens said. "Anyone buying a cut spruce tree should really be careful to get a fresh tree, and they should not put it up early."

Miscellaneous: In addition to these species, there are other pine trees such as the Noble fir, which is sometimes shipped to the Midwest from the West coast, and the red and Austrian pine trees, both of which have long needles but, according to Cassens, are coarser-looking trees than the Scotch or white pine trees.

Source: Daniel Cassens, (765) 494-3644

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Purdue forestry Professor Daniel Cassens, who says the perfect Christmas tree is in the eye of the beholder, strolls through rows of Scotch pine trees on his Christmas tree farm near West Lafayette. The trees, ready for sale this season, were planted seven years ago. (Purdue Ag Communication Service Photo by Tom Campbell)
Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Cassens.trees2
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