A survey published this spring in the American Christmas Tree Journal reported that only 22 percent of U.S. households with Christmas trees chose real ones. Gardeners are probably in that 22 percent. For us, nothing beats the beauty and fragrance of a real tree.
Some environmentally conscious people forgo a real tree because they have an inherent distaste of cutting down trees. While protecting our trees is certainly admirable, Christmas trees actually are an agricultural crop, albeit a very slow-growing one. When trees are cut, new seedlings are planted to replace them.
In addition, Christmas trees are grown on land that's considered marginal for other crops. Depending upon species and the size at which they're harvested, a tree may be in the ground anywhere from seven to 16 years. During that time, Christmas trees serve as habitat for wildlife, their roots help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion and, like any other plant, they take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.
You'll find a wide selection of Christmas trees at nurseries, garden centers and neighborhood tree lots or you can visit cut-your-own tree farms. (The Minnesota Christmas Tree Association lists tree farm operations by location on their Web site at www.mncta.com/choosencut.html.)
Here's a rundown of some Minnesota-grown trees and how they hold up under the weight of ornaments:
Scotch pine has stiff needles, about 1 to 3 inches long, in pairs. The foliage is very full and lasts well. Its branches are quite strong, making it a good choice for heavy ornaments.
White pine is more lacy and delicate-looking than scotch pine. Its soft, blue-green needles are 2 to 4 inches long, attached in bundles of five. Needle retention is good, but branches will droop or bend if hung with heavy ornaments.
Norway pine combines features from each of the other pines. Pairs of needles are dark green, about 3 to 5 inches long. Needle retention is excellent and its stout branches can hold all types of ornaments and decorations.
Fraser fir is known for its lovely scent. It has an abundance of short, flat needles that are dark blue-green with silvery undersides, and they are long-lasting. Until recently, most fraser firs were grown in southern states, but now many are grown locally.
Balsam fir, an old-fashioned favorite, is similar to fraser fir. Its needles also are dark green and flat, but are slightly longer and soft to the touch. Both firs can support ornaments of varying size and weight. Its distinctive fragrance -- the one most associated with the holidays -- is incorporated into candles, soaps and sachets.
There are three types of spruce generally sold as Christmas trees. They don't retain their needles as well as the pines and firs, but if they're fresh and kept well-watered they should do fine.
Colorado spruce may be steel blue, blue-green or dark green, with stiff, pointed needles about 1 inch long. Its strong branches are ideal for weighty ornaments.
White spruce has dense needles, a half-inch to 1 inch long. It's often cut as small trees for table tops.
Norway spruce may have the worst reputation for needle retention. However, proper care should keep it looking good for a reasonable length of time. Needles are shiny and dark green, only a half-inch in length.
Deb Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Yard and Garden Line at 612-624-4771.