How to Pick a Christmas Tree - Identifying the Different Varieties of Christmas Tree
Oh, Christmas Tree!
Late November is the beginning of that happy time of year when those who celebrate Christmas begin pulling out the ornaments and decorations in order to set the stage for their home holiday celebrations.
The Christmas tree is generally the central focus of all decorations, taking a prominent place in the living room, often visible from the front windows for all the neighbors to see and enjoy. Some homes even decorate more than one tree, placing one in the family room, the formal living room, the kitchen and even children’s bedrooms, for instance. For those who celebrate Christmas and enjoy decorating a tree, a great deal of thought, time and money can go into the holiday decorations.
Christmas trees come in many sizes running the gamut from table top trees to those reaching 12 feet and higher, size being limited by the size of the room and ceiling height in the home and the look that a particular family is aiming for.
How Lovely Are Your Branches!
While some families prefer a live cut tree or a living tree that can be planted after then holiday is over, other families prefer artificial trees. Artificial trees allow for an evergreen that will indeed remain evergreen throughout the season and will not turn brown, dry out or lose needles before the season has ended. Some folks prefer the control one has in knowing they will have the tree they desire, knowing the height and dimensions each year. The absence of a natural evergreen fragrance can be filled by using real greenery to in wreaths, mantle decorations and swags. Other folks will purchase pine scented candles or air fresheners to create that festive evergreen scent.
Whether you prefer to have an artificial tree or a real Christmas tree, you will still have to decide the type of tree you are looking for. Some of us prefer a tree that is full and feathery, even if such a tree cannot accommodate heavy ornaments. Others want a tree that has sturdy limbs with plenty of space that will allow for the ornaments to be seen, unobstructed by limbs and needles. We may not even realize it, but that “perfect” Christmas tree, the one we see when we close our eyes - whether it is from a childhood memory of the tree our parents or grandparents had, or a dream tree that we never had but wished to have “someday when I grow up” – that tree’s perfection begins with the actual attributes of a particular species. Christmas trees come in different varieties that each have their own look and even scent.
Christmas trees are typically chosen from Cypress, Fir, Pine, or Spruce trees.
Cypress are a hardy variety of evergreen trees and shrubs, closely related to Juniper, that are native to the Northern Hemisphere. Cypress have scale-like leaves that are typically pressed against the branch. The leaves, reminiscent of needles found on other evergreens, are short and pliable, not at all sharp or rigid; the branches have a hard bark. The most common cypress selected as a Christmas tree in North America is the Leyland Cypress (Cupress ocyparis leylandii).
Fir, closely related to cedar, is a variety of evergreen with species found throughout the world. Fir needle-like leaves are attached individually to the branch, each by a small suction cup like base, unlike other evergreens. Fir leaves are flat and will not roll between your fingers. They tend to be tall, pleasingly symmetrical trees.
A number of popular Christmas tree varieties are fir, including the Fraser Fir, the Balsam Fir, the White/Concolor Fir, the Noble Fir and the Grand Fir.
Pine trees are unusual in that their needles are bundled together in packs of two to five needles, where they attach to the tree branch. Pines are native to the Northern Hemisphere, however one species, the Sumatran pine, is found in the Southern Hemisphere.
Pine trees popular for use as Christmas trees are the Scotch Pine, the Eastern White Pine, and the Virginia Pine.
Spruce are found in the temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Spruce have whorled branches that wrap around the trunk and the needles (leaves)are attached individually to the branch. Spruce needles shed every four to ten years, leaving rough areas on the branches; these rough areas are not found on other types of evergreen. It is thought that the oldest tree on earth is a Spruce located in Sweden believed to be 9550 years old.
Spruce trees that find their way into our homes as Christmas trees are the Colorado Blue Spruce, the White Spruce, and the Norway Spruce.
Two other popular Christmas trees that do not fit in the above varieties are the Eastern Red Cedar (which is a Juniper, not a cedar) and the Douglas Fir (which is not actually a Fir).
Below, I have identified a number of common Christmas tree varieties and their particular attributes. I know you will find one that is particularly special to you!
Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)
- The #1 most popular choice for Christmas tree in the US
- dark green to blue-green flat needles with silvery-white undersides
- 1/2 to 1 inch long needles
- the tree has a slender profile, making it suitable for small spaces
- strong branches turn upward and hold heavy ornaments well
- excellent needle retention
- richly fragrant
- this tree ships well, making it popular with sellers
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
- #2 most popular Christmas tree in the US
- it is not really a fir
- this conical shaped tree retains its needles well
- branches are not very strong, so it is not suitable for heavy ornaments
- ½ - 1 1/2 inch soft, blue to dark green needles
- sweet fragrance, one of the best aromas of common Christmas tree varieties
- this tree is very common in Christmas tree lots, typically inexpensive
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
- #3 most popular Christmas tree in the US
- needles are ¾ - 1 ½ inch
- the needles are flat, rounded at tip
- dark green in color with a silver cast
- the needles are long-lasting
- the scent is pleasant and part of what makes this tree popular
Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens)
- often sold living with the root ball and can be planted after the holiday season
- needles are 1 – 3 inches long
- dark green to powdery blue needles
- very stiff, sharp needles
- stiff branches can hold heavy ornaments
- has a pretty pyramid form when young
- this tree has the best needle retention of all popular Christmas trees
Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
- most often planted commercial tree in North America
- 1 – 3 inch stiff needles, in bundles of two
- the stiff branches give an open appearance
- there is more room for ornaments
- needles retain approx. 4 weeks and do not drop when dry
- the scent is long lasting, throughout the season
- it is generally inexpensive to purchase
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus viginiana)
- NOT REALLY A CEDAR, it is a Juniper
- a traditional choice in the US South
- light, compact branches
- aromatic, dark shiny green needles
- needles are sharp, prickly, often sticky to touch
- this tree can dry out quickly, which can be problematic if tree is decorated early in season or is kept up late
White Spruce (Picea glauca)
- needles are green to bluish green
- needles are short and stiff, about ½ to ¾ inch long
- tree has strong limbs, excellent for heavy ornaments
White Fir aka Concolor Fir (Abies concolor)
- blue-green needles, ½ to 1 ½ inch long
- good needle retention
- the tree has an overall pleasant shape
- pleasing , citrus scent
- it is sometimes mistaken for a pine
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)
- originally a timber tree, but used as Christmas tree when pruned
- soft, blue-green needles, 2 to 5 inches long in bundles of five
- the tree has a very full appearance
- good needle retention
- little to no scent
- popular with those who have allergies to pine scent
Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
- dark green to gray needles
- 1 ½ to 3 inches long, in twisted pairs
- heavy, woody branches
- strong and can hold heavier ornaments than many other varieties
- new to being used as Christmas tree and has to be shaped mechanically
- this tree is most often purchased in the Southeast US
Leyland Cypress (Cupress ocyparis leylandii):
- very popular in the Southeast US
- dark green to gray "needles" on flat branches
- branches are upright and foliage has a feathery appearance
- the limbs are weak and not suitable for heavy ornaments
- the scent is light and works well for people who have allergies or other sensitivities to evergreen
Grand Fir (Abies grandis)
- shiny, dark green needles about 1" – 1 1/2 " long
- the needles, when crushed, give off a citrus fragrance
- needles aredeep green on top, white-striped underneath
- the tree is popularly though to provide a good backdrop for Christmas ornaments
Noble Fir (Abies procera)
- the needles are about one inch long, cool blue-green with silver
- the needles are turned upwards, leaving the bottom of branches exposed
- this is a long-lasting tree
- branches are well-spaced and dense
- the short, stiff branches can accommodate heavy ornaments
- used to make wreathes, garland and swags
Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
- needles are ½" – 1" long and shiny, dark green
- needle retention is poor without proper care
- this spruce has strong fragrance and a nice conical shape
- this tree is very popular in Europe
Do you prefer a live cut Christmas tree or an artificial Christmas tree?
- Pine Trees or Evergreens?
Learn the difference between pines and evergreens so you can identify them in your landscape. This will be important if you ever need help with the plant. Learn more from University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County.
- Christmas Tree Types
The Christmas tree often becomes the center point of holiday celebrations. Check out our guide to choosing the best type of Christmas tree for your home.
- Selecting the perfect Christmas tree: Tree types | MSU Extension