My Top Tips for Buying a Real Christmas Tree

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Part of my day job is buying Christmas trees for British department store John Lewis & Partners. It’s a task I particularly enjoy since I can apply a modicum of horticultural expertise to my decision-making. Over the years, artificial Christmas trees have become increasingly realistic, to the extent that many models now have ‘tips’ that are moulded from real fir and spruce branches. I have visited many a factory where branches have been stored in a refrigerator to keep them fresh whilst a new tree is created in their likeness. Yet there’s still nothing like having a real tree in one’s home at Christmas, and I go to great lengths to buy the biggest and best I can. Here are a few top tips to help you do the same.

When choosing a real Christmas tree it helps to think a little about the environment in which these trees grow naturally. Spruces (Picea spp.), firs (Abies spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) generally hail from cooler climates and high altitudes where they grow slowly on rocky terrain and impoverished soils. During winter, when they are not actively growing, conditions may be cold or freezing. Spruces, pines and firs are well adapted to challenging situations, hence many of the trees sold in the UK are grown in remoter parts of Scotland and Ireland where they also benefit from high rainfall. Slow growth and lack of competition from other plants results in naturally bushy, well-shaped trees. When grown in warmer climates or rich soils, Christmas trees may grow faster, but then require regular pruning to encourage bushiness.

I would always encourage people to buy local and certainly from UK growers, not least to support British agriculture, but also to lessen the environmental impact of needlessly transporting trees around the globe. Furthermore, a UK-grown tree is also likely to be a fresher tree, and that means brighter needles and perkier branches for longer in your home.

This year’s crop of Korean firs, Abies koreana. One of these could be in my home soon!

A Christmas tree’s penchant for cooler, wetter climes also explains why they struggle with dry, hot interiors. Heat and lack of humidity may dull the needles and cause them to drop quickly, which no-one wants. If you can bear it, bring your real tree indoors as close to Christmas as possible. Until then, store it in a dry, sheltered spot outside or in an unheated shed or garage. If you don’t have the patience (increasingly people want their tree up and decorated at the beginning of December), then keep the room it’s in as cool as you can stand, position the tree well away from radiators and stoves, and use a stand that holds a reservoir of water. This should be regularly topped up. Sawing a couple of inches off the bottom of the trunk is supposed to facilitate the uptake of water, but I have never found this makes a lot of difference. The main benefit of the water reservoir is that it creates humidity around the branches in an otherwise dry atmosphere.

Don’t expect your tree to look tip-top for four weeks or more. It may, if you choose the right one and treat it well, but one would not expect that longevity from a bunch of cut flowers, so why a large tree? Potted trees are an alternative to a cut tree but are only any use if you have somewhere to grow them on afterwards, which most of us do not. Potted trees also need watering to keep them fresh and should be put outside as soon as the festivities are over. A potted tree that drops its needles may re-shoot in the spring, so don’t give up hope if your tree looks like it’s had too many sherries come the New Year.

Korean fir (Abies koreana)

I am fortunate in my job that I require only a few trees of the highest quality, which means I can select from small lots that would not satisfy the appetites of the big boys. To give an example, our Korean Firs (Abies koreana) come from a small field in Oxfordshire where they are carefully tended until they reach the required size. For a 7ft tree, that might be ten years. I am having an 8ft Korean fir delivered in a couple of weeks which will create a wonderful centrepiece for my library. Korean firs are rarely offered for sale in the UK but make splendid Christmas trees. They are extremely challenging to grow commercially owing to their tendency not to grow straight or on one central trunk. Larger specimens might have dramatic black cones and the soft needles have a whitish underside: a winning combination.

The characteristically flattened needles of the Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana

We are not very adventurous in the UK when it comes to buying real Christmas trees. Nowadays most of us choose a Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), a fast-growing, chubby, large-needled tree. It’s a perfectly good choice, but hardly a talking point. The secret is to buy one that’s been grown slowly and in splendid isolation in order to achieve a really good shape. Expect the top quarter of the tree to be more open and hang your dangliest decs here to hide the gaps. You may miss the classic Christmas tree scent associated with the Norway spruce (Picea abies). This is the tree we all fell out of love with after a deluge of prickly needles worked their way into our shag pile and then the gaps between our floorboards. Norway spruce remains the tree of choice for public spaces. It’s the handsome specimen that stands in Trafalgar Square and every other town centre in the UK from around now. As a Christmas tree it is an inexpensive choice, costing about half the price of a Nordmann fir ….. just have the hoover bags ready!

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri)

A much better Christmas tree to my mind is the Fraser fir, (Abies fraseri) from the Southeastern part of the USA. It is bushy and upright with soft, dark-green needles and a wonderful citrusy fragrance. It has been my tree of choice for the last three years and I have found it to last a lot longer than a Nordmann fir brought inside at a similar time. For John Lewis & Partners this has become our most popular trees, and this year it’s already sold out. The greatest benefit of a Fraser fir is that the branches are firmly ‘upswept’, meaning that they don’t tend to droop under the weight of heavier baubles.

New to me this year is the Rocky Mountain or Sub-alpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa). Another species originating from America, this time the north. When fully grown this tree forms a tall, narrow spire, but as a Christmas tree it is compact and conical. The main differentiating feature is the bluish-green needles, which give the Rocky Mountain fir a softer, gentler appearance which would work well in a more contemporary setting. I am going to try one out at home this year, if I can find somewhere to fit one in! We have a few left at the time of writing but they are selling fast.

Rocky Mountain Fir, Abies lasiocarpa

Missing from our portfolio is a truly ‘blue’ tree, by which I mean a tree with bluish, silver-grey needles, not a tree that’s been dyed blue like those ugly bunches of chrysanthemums one sees in supermarkets. The blue spruce (Picea pungens) is generally offered for sale as a small potted tree at a relatively high price. If you have the space, it’s worth planting a blue spruce out in the garden after Christmas as it makes a handsome tree after 10-15 years. A sunny spot will greatly enhance the colouration. Blue spruce also has great needle retention if you find it as a cut tree.

Many of you will be out buying a real Christmas tree this weekend. If I tell you that I think it’s too early my advice will probably fall on deaf ears, so make sure it’s fresh, buy the best tree you can on your budget, keep it somewhere cool and humid (preferably not indoors) and use a stand with a water reservoir. If your local garden centre or tree lot is offering anything other than the trusty Nordmann fir, perhaps try a different variety of tree this year. And if you want an A-grade tree delivered direct to your door by a well known retailer, you know where to look 😉 TFG.

Yours truly, at home at The Watch House, with my JL&P Fraser fir

Categories: Christmas, Foliage, fragrance, Practical Advice, Trees and Shrubs, Uncategorized

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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22 comments On "My Top Tips for Buying a Real Christmas Tree"

  1. Wonderfully timely and in-depth advice Dan, it will be re-read and heeded!
    Your tree looks beautiful, your readers have a lot to live up to.

  2. This isn’t an option available to everyone, but…

    The best Christmas trees I ever had were from my childrens’ school. I did a few years as chair of the “Friends”, and one of the things that we did each year was decorate a few trees for them.

    The school bought some really good trees from a local grower – about 10′ high.

    Some years, the school buildings were hired out over the holidays, and the people renting wanted the trees left.

    Some years, however, the head of maintenance was delighted at my offer to haul one of them off 🙂 Sure it didn’t make it to my house at the start of advent, but it was there a good couple of weeks before Christmas day.

  3. Great article about finding and choosing the freshest tree possible! As a native of the Southeaster United States, I am well acquainted with the fragrant Fraser Fir from my childhood and early adult years. We no longer do fresh trees because of sinus issues, but our daughter certainly does. I’ll forward your piece on to her. She often puts up her family’s tree fairly early in Advent, but we wait until at least mid-month. Decorating for me is a gradual thing: first, candles in the windows, then the Advent wreath on the first Sunday, and each week arrangements of fresh greenery and berry branches from the garden. The tree is the “crowning glory” of it all.

    1. Definitely a gradual thing for me too, beginning with an advent calendar, then artificial trees, followed by the real ones as late as I can possibly leave them. Fresh flowers come only a few days before Christmas, so that tight buds have the opportunity to open. What I hate is when it all has to go into reverse!!

  4. Good advice for those looking for traditional evergreen Christmas trees! If you can stand to go a bit oddball, though, try your garden center. I got tired of having the same argument with Lord Flashheart (10 years running) about plastic trees v. dead ones, so last spring I bought and potted up a Leyland cypress. It survived the summer (yay) and will make a adequate, if minimalist, 4’ Christmas tree this December. Argument won, I think.

  5. Whatever happened to a ‘traditional’ Christmas?

    The tree went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Twelfth Night when I was a kid; all of Christmas fitted in between.

    Now they go up before December has started and come down on Boxing day!

    Mind you, I was brought up on an estate where we could cut our own choice of tree [all Picea abies; planted for pheasant cover originally].

    I will defer a ‘season’s greeting’ until the season is here, but nice to see an intelligent post on the trees.


    1. Thanks Chad. I think traditions vary, but I agree that putting up the tree seems to get earlier and earlier. I don’t like to do anything before December, unless it’s for a photo shoot (which happens a lot at my house!) and then I decorate in stages. I cannot be considered normal since Christmas is a 365 day a year event in my life! Dan

  6. My husband’s family tradition was like Chad’s ~ tree up on Christmas Eve for the boys to discover early Christmas morning, then down on Twelfth Night. My mother, on the other hand, put up the tree as early as possible, then took it all down on Boxing Day!! Certainly by New Year’s Eve because, she said, it was bad luck to keep it up longer. We do keep all our decorations up until the 6th of January, but I begin a gradual process early in Advent with candles in the windows and the wreath on the table.

    1. That sounds wonderful. I could not take my trees down as soon as Boxing Day. I am only just beginning to wind down and enjoy the festivities at that point! I am not too fussed about when all the decorations are put away, and it’s sometimes as late as the end of January. I don’t care as only I can see them.

      1. I tend to put the tree up after Saint Nicholas day and keep it until Epiphany. Many French people do it this way.

      2. To us, Christmas week and beyond is the time to enjoy the lovely afterglow of Christmas Day itself, especially if the weather is gloomy and I can keep the lights on all day.

  7. Great, thank you for sharing your knowledge. Reminds me, when I was a kid one year we had a tree that was so fresh it developed fresh shoots – we couldn’t take it down and it stayed up until February decorated with bunting instead of baubles, think we only threw it out as we went on holidays…

  8. Thank you for sharing your knowledge ! I will certainly pay more attention and maybe try to find something else than the Nordmann tree. I do like Christmas tree to be a bit open, though, with some air between the tiers.

  9. How interesting that North American firs are grown there. Except for those that are endemic nearby, we do not even grow them here. White fir from the Sierra Nevada is not grown commonly as a Christmas tree. The native Santa Lucia fir is not grown as a Christmas tree because the foliage is too prickly. Douglas fir is the most popular here, which is funny because it is also native. Redwoods do not make good Christmas trees.

  10. Lovely and informative post, thank you. I buy Fraser fir for Christmas from a farm that employs people living with disability, their other choices are Normann fir and Norway spruce. The Fraser has a light scent and I have been pining for something stronger – without the needle shed we had from the spruce in the first year – but it sounds like the Normann would not be an improvement. We have it delivered as I don’t live close to them, so I could not try in person.

    Your decorations are stunning! While not very horticultural, I’d love to learn where you got them from. I buy some baubles every year in JL&P 🙂 but my (one) tree does not look remotely as good as yours.

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