My Top Tips for Buying a Real Christmas Tree

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