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How to Pick a Christmas Tree

Are you picking up a tree this weekend? Here are ten different types of Christmas tree species with tips to help you decide which one is the best for you.

Christmas Tree Farm. iStock

Christmas comes but once a year, and picking out the perfect tree to jolly up the living room is a family ritual full of fun and promise. But with all the different types of trees out there, it's hard to know which one is right for your holiday display.

Here are a few tips from our experts on how to pick one, the different types of real Christmas trees, how to measure for it, and make sure it lasts through December 25 and maybe into the New Year.

How to Pick a Christmas Tree

For the freshest and healthiest tree, you should patronize an established tree farm or a lot that brings in trees from local farms. The ones that the farms sell are grown specifically to retain their needles.

Most Christmas trees are cut about 3 to 4 weeks before they arrive on the lot—usually the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to Clarke Gernon, chairman of the National Christmas Tree Association.

Once you’re perusing the lot, picking the right tree is like picking ripe mango: you should smell and touch.

  1. Test the branches. Grab any branch on the tree between your thumb and forefinger, gently clamp down and pull towards yourself. If you end up with a handful of needles, the tree is already past its prime.
  2. Crush the needles in your hand and then check the scent. “If the tree doesn’t smell enough, don’t buy it,” says Roger.
  3. Bounce the tree by holding it a few inches above the ground and dropping it. If the exterior needles fall off, it’s sure sign of a bad apple. Needles that fall off from the interior of the tree are normal.
  4. Make absolutely sure the tree’s trunk fits your stand. Trimming the diameter of the tree by cutting away the bark will strip the tree of its cambium layer, which absorbs water. If this happens your tree is a goner.

10 Different Types of Christmas Trees

1. Balsam Fir

Balsam Fir tree iStock

The variety and popularity of Christmas trees varies geographically. There are about 16 species of Christmas trees around the United States.

The classic tree (and the least expensive) in the Northeast is a balsam fir. It has a deep green color, excellent needle retention, and is one of the most aromatic of all the Christmas trees.

The balsam fir has dark green needles, needles that stay put, and is very fragrant.

Why Pick a Balsam Fir Christmas Tree:

  • Shape: A thin, spire-like top (perfect for a star or an angel) sets this pyramid-shaped tree apart.
  • Needles: Short, long-lasting dark green needles are ¾ inch to 1½ inches long and tend to be flat or blunt at the tip.
  • Scent: Its strong evergreen scent can easily fill a room.
  • Trimmings: Dense limbs can hold weighty ornaments and larger globe or C-bulb lights.

2. Fraser Fir

Fraser fir tree branch. iStock

But the up and comer all along the east coast is the Fraser fir. “It’s sort of a cousin to the balsam fir—very, very attractive needles,” says Roger, referring to the bluish silver underside found on the branches of this species. Frasers also have good needle retention.

A Fraser’s needles are typically 3/4 of an inch long with a shiny dark green top and silvery bottom.

Why Pick a Fraser Fir Christmas Tree:

  • Shape: The branches turn slightly upward, giving it a full, compact appearance.
  • Needles: Short dark green needles have a silvery underside and are ½ to 1 inch long; resists shedding.
  • Scent: Its fresh, mild fragrance is subtler than the balsam’s.
  • Trimmings: Thick branches will hold most decorations; it’s easy to reach interior branches, so cords are less visible.

3. Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir iStock

The more expensive choice for the Northeast—but the popular and budget/local choice in the Northwest—is the Douglas fir. It’s more portly in shape, with a paler green color, and soft needles—which make it child friendly. However, the limbs are a bit dainty and will bend under heavy ornamentation.

Needle color is either dark green or blue green and emit a sweet scent when crushed.

4. Arizona Cypress

Arizon Cypress tree iStock

From North Carolina to Texas, the Arizona cypress is a hit. It has a steel blue color with soft needles and a lemony mint aroma.

This cypress has plenty of smaller needles and its color ranges from pale green to gray green.

5. Virginia Pine

Virginia Pine Alamy

But the biggest seller—and low-budget choice—in the South is pine, particularly Virginia pine, with its straight trunk and a classic pine scent. However, Virginia pine, has a lot of pitch, the natural resin that makes the branches and trunk sticky.

The classic pine scent of the Virginia makes it a popular choice inside the house, and they respond well to trimming making them a good choice for landscape.

6. Leyland Cypress

Leyland Cypress iStock

If you’re allergic to pitch you might consider the Leyland cypress; which has very little scent or pitch and a deep green color.

Not a naturally occurring tree, this hybrid of Monterey cypress and Alaskan cedar is propagated by rooted cutting only.

7. White Pine

Eastern White Pine iStock

In the Mid-Atlantic states, the eastern white pine shows up in most tree lots. It’s a basic, inexpensive pine that grows well at low altitudes.

One of the most popular Christmas trees, and with soft needles could be safer around small children.

Why Pick a White Pine Christmas Tree:

  • Shape: Elegantly conical; needles are grouped in clusters, so you’ll see more trunk.
  • Needles: Long, flexible needles (2½ to 5 inches long) are gentle enough for delicate skin.
  • Scent: Minimal fragrance makes it a good choice for sensitive noses.
  • Trimmings: More of a tinsel-and-lights tree; soft needles can cause ornaments to slip.

8. Scotch Pine

Scotch Pine iStock

In the colder parts of the Midwest, the hardy Scotch pine, which grows well near the Canadian border, gets glowing recommendations for its soft, hairlike, striped needles and its ability to stand up well to transportation.

Also called Scotch, this pine had a dark green color and stiff branches that won’t buckle under heavy lighting and ornamentation

Why Pick a Scotch Pine Christmas Tree:

  • Shape: The most popular tree in the U.S., this pine is symmetrical and dense-looking, thanks to full branches.
  • Needles: Bright green needles grow up to 3 inches long; resists shedding, even if you forget to water it.
  • Scent: It has a lasting, pleasant piney aroma.
  • Trimmings: The branches are sturdy, so bring on the heavy decorations.

9. Monterey Pine

Monterey Pine Alamy

Tree lovers in the Southwest usually go for the Monterey pine, which is deep green in color and has medium length needles and a bushy overall appearance.

Is a fast-growing tree that’s adaptable to a broad range of soil types and climates, in a good situation it can reach its full height in 40 years.

10. Blue Spruce

Blue Spruce iStock

In the West, especially around the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado blue spruce is a local favorite. It has a rounded pyramid shape, which gives it a very full appearance. It has fragrant but sharp needles, and a silvery or bluish color.

Blue spruces reach heights of 65 to 115 feet outdoors, but the narrow, pyramidal shape makes it a Christmas tree favorite.

Why Pick a Blue Spruce Christmas Tree:

  • Shape: Perfectly symmetrical, this tree looks full with few gaps.
  • Needles: Short blue needles are 1 inch to 1½ inches long with an extremely sharp point at the end.
  • Scent: Mild aroma, but if you crush the needles, they produce a resiny smell.
  • Trimmings: Holds most ornaments; prickly needles make inner-limb decorating a challenge.

Perfect Christmas Tree Care

Once you’ve picked your Christmas tree, knowing how to keep it green and fragrant once you deck it out is a talent that eludes many a yuletide reveler. "When a tree goes south," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, "ninety-nine percent of the time it's human error."

1. Measure Your Space Before You Head to the Lot

Before you head out to the farm or tree lot, make sure you know just what size tree you can fit in your house. Measure the height of your ceiling, but remember to subtract the height of your stand and the tree topper you want to use to get the maximum tree height you can fit. Also clear the space where you'll put the tree and see how deep it is.

Different species are different girths, so you want to be sure you won't be squishing the branches against the wall. And keep an eye on the size of your stand. You want to be sure the trunk of your tree will fit in it, and that it's big enough to keep your tree upright. If you're upgrading to a larger tree this year, you may need to invest in a bigger stand.

Failure to measure accurately and you could have a tell-tail sign of the mistake: "If you go to someone's house and there is a big, brown streak across the ceiling," says Roger. "That's usually where they stood up a Christmas tree that was too tall."

2. Get a Fresh Cut Christmas Tree

Cut tree iStock

Cutting the end off the trunk is critical to opening up the veins that will deliver water to the branches. Use a pruning saw, and take at least an inch off. You can have the lot do it before you leave if you're headed for home, but you should wait if you're going to be out more than four hours. Otherwise, the end will glaze over with new pitch, and the tree won't take up water.

3. Wrap Up Your Christmas Tree Properly

Wrapped up trees. iStock

Before you tie up the tree, have the lot attendant put it through a shaker (if they have one—some farms use a blower, though a vigorous bounce will do as well). This will shake off any dead, interior needles.

Don’t worry—it’s perfectly natural for an evergreen to have some dead needles on it from fall. Then have the tree sent through the baling machine to wrap it in netting for easy transport.

4. Put Up Your Christmas Tree in a Stand

Now you'll have to fit the tree into the stand. Most stands have small prongs in the bottom to hold the center of the tree.

After the trunk has been cut you may have to remove a few bottom limbs so that you can make contact with those prongs and the bottom of the trunk rests on the bottom of the tree stand—if not, the tree could swing side to side.

While the tree is still wrapped in mesh, place it on its side and use a rubber mallet to drive the stand's prongs securely onto the trunk before tightening up the thumbscrews that hold the tree in the stand.

Before tilting the tree vertical, set down some newspaper or an old rug under where the stand will be to catch any spilled water.

5. Add A Lot of Clean Water

Once the tree is upright, add clean water—a lot of it—as soon as possible. "People have to understand the first couple of days the tree is going to suck up at least a gallon of water," Roger says.

The actual amount a tree can consume varies, so be vigilant the first two days, refilling when the stand gets low until the levels stay steady.

Never let the water level drop beyond the cut end or you run the risk of pitch forming, which will seal off the tree's ability to absorb water. Roger also doesn't see the need for any additives, like aspirin or plant food, as long as the water is clean and fresh.

6. Decorate Your Christmas Tree Safely

Christmas tree surrounded with gifts.  iStock

With the tree upright and hydrated, cut off the mesh and spread out the branches. Most trees will settle and open up over a couple of hours, so you should wait to start hanging lights and ornaments.

Then check all your lights for shorts and trouble spots before you string the tree, and never ever put the tree near the fireplace or lighted candles. A Christmas tree is just one flame away from a forest fire.

Also, keep glass ornaments higher on the tree, especially in households with small children, who might knock them over an break them. Then enjoy your decorations for the duration, until it's time to take everything down.

7. Dispose of Your Tree Responsibly

There are a few ways to recycle your Christmas tree when the holidays are over. Chop it into smaller pieces and put it directly right into your compost pile, or put it through the chipper to make mulch.

If you need to throw it away, check with your town—most schedule set days for tree pickup, when they come around with a chipper to turn the trees into landscaping materials or haul them off to a landfill.

However, beware: Most towns won't take trees that are wrapped in any un-organic material, like the plastic disposal bags. So if you want to be neat about disposal, wrap the tree in craft paper before hauling it out to the curb.