Buying Christmas Trees: A Field Guide

Buying Christmas trees can be confusing with 50 different kinds sold in the U.S. This field guide shares regional conifer information, and illustrated descriptions of popular Christmas trees available.

| November/December 1987

With over 50 different types of Christmas trees available in the U.S. it might be difficult to make a decision about what tree to purchase. This field guide shows what each conifer variety offers when buying Christmas trees.  (See the varieties of Christmas trees in the image gallery).

Buying Christmas Trees: A Field Guide

Think of a Christmas tree lot as a sort of forest concentrate, pure evergreen. At least 50 different kinds of conifers are sold as Christmas trees in the U.S., and a half-dozen or more species may be available on a single lot in any given area.

But which is which? Other than an arboretum, there's no better place to learn the differences among conifers than a tree lot, where you can compare similar-looking species needle to needle, branch to branch.

Often, it's the needles that tell the entire tale. If the needles are growing in clusters, with each cluster bound at the base by a papery sheath extending from a single point on the branch, you're looking at a pine. Among conifers, only the pines bear needles in groups.

If you count five needles in each cluster, you've found a white pine (Pinus strobus), the tree that once blanketed vast areas of the Northeast. Pioneers used to say that a squirrel could travel a lifetime without ever coming down out of the white pines. Its lavish, 2 inch to 4 inch light green needles and conical shape make P. strobus a favored Christmas tree throughout its natural range, but its brittle branches make shipping to other areas difficult. A Western variety of white pine, P. monticola, has shorter, stouter needles—also in bundles of five.

Groups of two flexible, shiny green needles up to 6 inch long suggest the red pine (P. resinosa), sometimes called Norway pine, long the shipbuilder's preferred tree for masts and decking. Shorter, slightly twisted, blue-green needles in bundles of two indicate the venerable Scotch pine (P. sylvestris), our only naturalized nonnative conifer. Its sturdy boughs and dense, long-lasting foliage have made the Scotch the number one Christmas tree in many parts of the country.

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