5 Top Christmas Tree Types: A Guide To Finding Your Perfect Match

Every year is different when it comes to Christmas. But in my home, there is one thing that remains constant. When I shop for a tree, I always head straight for the Fraser firs. These are the trees I grew up with, and their fragrance reminds me of my childhood. And as we all know, memory is a key component in any holiday décor.

Today, the Fraser fir is one of the most popular types of Christmas trees sold. Blessed with good form and upward-pointing branches, it is uniquely suited for heavy ornaments. But for me, its greatest asset is its smell. An intoxicating blend of pine and lemon, it’s the first thing that greets me at the door, instantly boosting my mood during the Christmas season.

4 KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN SELECTING A TREE

That being said, there is more than one type of Christmas tree available. In fact, there are now over 35 different species being grown, answering to all kinds of tastes and décor. Regardless of which one you choose, though, there are four key things to consider before making a purchase. They are:

Freshness * Needle Retention * Branch Structure * Durability

HOW DO I TELL IF A TREE IS FRESH?

This is the crucial question. Unless you’ve chopped your tree down in the woods, it can be hard to determine a pre-cut tree’s freshness. To that end, the most important indicator is its needle retention. A fresh tree’s needles are pliable, meaning they stay put, even if you pull on them.

Pine needles

Pull on the needles to see if they’re fresh

Another key indicator is the trunk. According to North Carolina State Extension/Christmas Trees, a fresh tree has a sticky one.

cut Christmas tree trunks

Sticky trunks indicate freshness

Ready to try something new? Following are specifics on five popular Christmas tree types and how they fit the above parameters.

FRASER FIR

Native to the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern United States, the Fraser Fir is named after the Scottish botanist John Fraser (1750-1811) who discovered it in the late 18th century. Since that time, growing and harvesting Fraser firs for holiday decoration has become a multimillion-dollar business in southern Appalachia, with North Carolina producing the majority.

Fraser fir

Fraser Fir

One of the most recognizable characteristics of this Christmas tree type are its needles. Short and soft, they are blue-green on the surface and silver below, giving the tree a shimmering quality. The Fraser fir is naturally pyramidal, has excellent needle retention and stays fresh for weeks while emitting a pleasant, forest scent. Sturdy limbs make it perfect for heavy ornaments. And plenty of open space between branches makes decorating easy.

DOUGLAS FIR

It may contain the word fir, but the Douglas fir is actually a member of the pine family. Native to western North America, it is named after David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who discovered it. 

Douglas fir

Douglas Fir

The family connection explains the Douglas fir’s soft green needles, a characteristic of most pine species. Radiating in all directions from the twig like a bottle brush, they emit a sweet fragrance when crushed. Douglas firs are nearly perfectly conical and their branches are spreading to drooping, the perfect holiday shape. You can almost imagine them laden with snow.

COLORADO BLUE SPRUCE

Also known simply as blue spruce, this conical tree with short needles and stiff horizontal branches is the most commonly used Christmas tree type in the Midwest. A nice pyramidal shape and strong limbs make it an excellent choice for decorating.

Blue spruce

Blue Spruce

Lovely bluish-gray foliage give it an added allure and its needle retention is among the best for spruces. But beware — the needles emit a bad odor when crushed. As the popularity of Colorado blue spruces as landscape ornamentals has grown, many consumers now purchase them as ‘living’ Christmas trees to be planted after the holiday season.

BALSAM FIR

Known for its fragrance and near perfect conical shape, the Balsam fir has the distinction of having been chosen for the first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse by President Calving Coolidge in 1923. Harvested from Vermont, the 48-foot tall specimen was decorated with 2,500 red, white and green electric bulbs. Since then, the types of National Christmas Trees have varied, with this year’s 30-foot tall blue spruce hailing from the state of Pennsylvania.

Balsam fir

Balsam firs are generally found in the northeastern United States and eastern and central Canada. Aside from their distinctive provenance, what makes them so attractive are their short, flat, dark green needles, flexible branches, and slender pyramidal shape (including a spire-like tip perfectly suited for an angel or Christmas star). 

SCOTCH PINE

Native to northern Europe and northern Asia from Scotland to Siberia, the Scotch pine today is the most widely planted tree in the United States. 

Scotch pine

Scotch pine

Also known as Scots pine (in reference to its Scottish roots), its blue-green needles have a distinctive twisted shape, turning 360° as they leave the twig. As an added bonus, the tree rarely sheds its needles. 

Scotch pines can be tough on the hands while decorating, however, as needles can be sharp as pins. I recommend wearing gloves when hanging your ornaments. 

 

Feed The Birds: 10 Plants With Great Winter Seedheads

Once flowers dry up in the vase, we tend to throw them in the garbage. But outdoors, it’s a whole different story. Not only do the seedheads of spent flowers bring beauty to the garden, but they also furnish food to hungry birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should cause us to think twice before we start cutting our plants back for the winter.

SEEDHEADS ADD STRUCTURE TO A WINTER GARDEN

When left standing, dried flower stalks and stems can be every bit as striking as bare trees or the skeletons of leafless shrubs. Just like a sepia photo, the soft brown tint of many dried plants brings a warmth and intensity to the winter garden. (They also look great in dried arrangements.) 

Looking for winter interest? It doesn’t have to be all about evergreens. Take a second look at these faded beauties and see them for their sculptural forms. They’ll add structure to your cold-weather garden.

BIRDS LOVE THEM

That being said, the most important reason to leave some plants standing is for their seedheads. During the cold winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming plants are important food sources for many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds like chickadees and goldfinches often perch right on the seedhead, while larger birds forage for seeds on the ground. And many birds that eat insects during the summer switch to seeds in the winter once these resources are no longer available.

Not surprisingly, sunflower seeds rank high among most seed-eating birds, including cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers to name just a few. American goldfinches in particular also gravitate towards smaller composite flowers like asters and coreopsis. And for most birds, the dried inflorescences of ornamental grasses furnish essential food while the plants themselves provide great wildlife habitats.

rabbit sheltering in dried grass

A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock

Winter is a harsh season for many animals as natural food sources become scarce. Waiting to cut dried plants down directly benefits your local wildlife.

10 PLANTS WITH BEAUTIFUL SEEDHEADS

Of course, you should still prune those plants whose stems collapse or decay. But when it come to the sturdier plants, like the ones listed below, let them remain upright in the garden during the winter. You’ll be rewarded with a flurry of wildlife activity. Chop these plants down in the early spring when new growth starts to appear.

burdock

The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock

ECHINACEA (CONEFLOWER)

Denuded of its purple/pink petals, echinacea’s (coneflower) magnificent pyramidal cone is hard to ignore. Blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches all enjoy eating its seeds. The larger the group, the better. 

Echinacea seedhead

RUDBECKIA (BLACK-EYED SUSAN)

Late to the scene, rudbeckias (Black-eyed Susans) add a welcome blast of color to the late-summer garden. And some would say that their distinctive black seedheads are every bit as beautiful as their flowers. Like coneflowers, these sturdy plants will remain standing for much of the winter. And goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees and towhees all enjoy feasting on their tiny dark cones.

Black-eyed Susans are veritable bird-feeders

JOE PYE WEED

Joe Pye Weed is as happy growing on the roadside as it is in the garden. In the summer, its mauve blooms are covered with pollinators. Once its flowers have faded, the seedheads also provide seeds to chickadees, wrens and titmice as well as the fluff to build their winter nests.

American goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed

Goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed/Photo: shutterstock

SCABIOSA (PINCUSHION FLOWER)

Scabiosa columnaria’s distinctive prickly round seedhead leaves no doubt as to how it acquired its common name, pincushion flower. Birds eat its ripe seeds in the fall.

scabiosa seedhead

Scabiosa seedhead/Photo: shutterstock

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES

During the winter, many native birds like sparrows and finches forage for seeds from ornamental grasses, just as they do in the wild. The plants’ brown flowerheads furnish seeds throughout the winter. And their dense foliage provides great shelter. 

snow on ornamental grass

Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock

SEDUM

Almost more beautiful in autumn than in summer, sedum’s flat, brick-red flower clusters last well into the winter. During the hot weather months, they’re covered with pollinators. But in the winter, upright varieties like ‘Autumn Joy’ provide an abundance of food to finches, chickadees and other seed-eating birds. 

dried flowerheads of sedum

Dried flowerheads of Sedum/Photo: shutterstock

COREOPSIS

In the summer, this cheerful plant with nectar-rich blooms is a magnet for pollinators, including hummingbirds. And in the fall and early winter, its dried flowers provide food for sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

coreopsis seedhead

Coreopsis seedheads/Photo: shutterstock

EVENING PRIMROSE

As its name implies, evening primrose is known for its flowers that open at night and generally close in late morning. Its stiff seed pods have four chambers, each of which contains 300+ reddish brown seeds. Produced in September, the seeds are favorites of wildlife and goldfinches, in particular.

evening primrose

Evening Primrose

MULLEIN (VERBASCUM)

This silver, velvety leaved plant with tall yellow flowers often appears unannounced in the garden. Originally from Europe, it has naturalized all over the world. Since its large rosettes survive the cold weather, mullein makes a great home for overwintering insects like ladybugs. Its seeds are also eaten by many birds.

Mullein growing wild in a field

 

A Beginner’s Guide To The Different Types Of Daffodils

Next week, I’ll be planting my daffodils in what has become for me an annual tradition. Why, you may ask, since they multiply so quickly? Well nowadays, daffodils come in an astonishing array of colors, shapes and sizes. So each year, I add a few more varieties to my garden, while savoring the list of further possibilities. Continue reading

Drink To Your Health With These 10 Best Medicinal Teas

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Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of freshly brewed hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas are packed with powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before reaching for a pill, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading

How To Build The Perfect Monarch Butterfly Garden

monarch on pink flowers

Daniel Potter freely admits he’s not an expert on monarchs. But as a professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, he and his grad students sure love to run experiments. Recently, they completed a 2-year study on the likes and dislikes of the popular orange and black butterfly. Now for the first time ever, there’s a roadmap for building the perfect monarch garden. Continue reading

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette but is also one of just a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading

The Late-Summer Delights Of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

sedum autumn joy in the garden

Are you on the hunt for a dependable plant for your late-summer garden? Look no further than sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’ Come August, its lovely clusters of tiny flowers are just starting to adopt a rosy-pink hue. And best of all, the blooms keep going for weeks, gradually turning a dusty red that’s the perfect compliment to fall. Continue reading

Chesapeake Bay Wildflowers: July’s Top 10 Bloomers

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‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse

For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Even though I’ve noticed many beautiful species in the landscape, I’ve never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind. Continue reading

How To Cope With Boxwood Blight: An Expert Weighs In

It’s not every day you get to discuss your problems with an international expert. But Lynn Batdorf is the real deal. Batdorf is the world’s top resource on everything boxwood, including all of the diseases and pests that affect this diverse species. Recently he spoke to me about how to deal with the latest threat to our gardens, the dreaded boxwood blight. Continue reading