Fir Goodness Sake

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by Charles Kidder

Each year thousands of fir trees are sold to Virginians. Most, by far, are dead. Yet we don’t get upset about it. We take the still-green tree indoors, hang lights and ornaments on it, and enjoy it during the dark days of winter. When the holidays are over, we (hopefully) take the tree to a secluded corner of our property and allow it to recycle itself. Bringing greens into the home during the winter solstice goes back to ancient Rome, and perhaps even Egypt. Germans and Hessians brought the tradition to the United States in the early 1800s.

Firs are just one type of Christmas tree we can buy in this area. We can also choose among various pines, spruces, cedars and cypresses. Each has its virtues, so choice largely boils down to personal preference. We also have a choice between cut trees, or living trees that will end up in our landscape. (Buying plastic or aluminum trees that are manufactured half-way across the world is NOT an option. At least, not one that we will discuss in a gardening column.)

A hundred years ago, a home-cut tree was definitely the most convenient and least expensive option. Rural residents just walked out on their property and lopped down a small cedar or pine. But now an increasingly urban population, even in Albemarle County, is more than likely buying a tree that somebody else grew, obtaining it from a retail lot or garden center. When you buy a tree this way, you really have no idea when it was cut, and freshness is crucial to its longevity. To ascertain freshness, apply pressure to the needles. They should bend and not break. Also, give the tree a shake. Very few, if any, needles should drop off.

To truly assure the freshness of your Christmas tree, you can take the do-it-yourself approach at a choose-and-cut farm. There a few in our area, primarily in Nelson and Augusta Counties. (A complete listing can be found at www.virginiachristmastrees.org.) To get the freshest tree, it’s best to wait until fairly close to Christmas, but then the selection will be more limited. You’ll have to figure out that trade off for yourself.

Water is crucial to a cut tree. When you get it home, cut a quarter inch off the bottom of the trunk, and put it in water immediately, even if you are not ready to bring the tree inside your home. If you are keeping it outside, shelter from sun and wind will promote longevity. The tree will drink some water, but will slurp up even more when you bring it indoors to warmer temperatures, perhaps three quarts a day. (Water consumption will taper off after a few days.) Do not let the water level drop below the base of the trunk! If this does occur, make a fresh cut at the bottom of the trunk.

When setting up your tree, avoid hot and dry locations near radiators or heat registers if possible. Heat from tree lights is not much of an issue with modern strings; however, I have noticed that some of my older bulbs get too hot to touch. Not good on a flammable tree, to say the least. Of course, turn off the lights when you leave the house or go to bed.

Live trees require a lot more coddling than cut ones. First, make sure you are getting a variety that will do well in our climate; a reputable nursery will not sell anything else. Especially, avoid the gnome-cute Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’). They may look great at the nursery, but are trees of the far north and will suffer in these parts.

Before you bring the tree indoors, keep it in a cool, sheltered location, such as an unheated porch, for a few days. Once inside, keep it in the coolest room available—assuming someone will actually see it there! The root ball or container should be kept moist but not waterlogged.

Keep a live tree in the house for as short a time as is reasonable, perhaps a week to ten days. (None of this Thanksgiving-to-New-Year’s nonsense!) When it’s time to take it outside, reverse the acclimation process, i.e. first place the tree in a cool, sheltered location for a few days, then move it to the cold, cruel reality of winter. At this point, I hope you dug your hole in early December, considerably reducing the chance of finding frozen ground or snow cover. But if you dig early you won’t be fending off the post-holiday blahs and weight gain.

A few words about species selection: White pines are the softest, but sheared trees tend to be quite dense, and some folks say it’s difficult to hang large ornaments. Fraser firs, as well as their close cousins the balsam fir and Canaan fir, have virtually become the varieties of default in last few decades, largely owing to tree farms in the Virginia and North Carolina mountains. They seem to emit the best fragrance and have enough space to hang ornaments. (Fullness is largely a function of shearing, and wild-grown trees tend to be much more open.)

I have a personal preference for the firs, perhaps going back to my childhood. When I checked with Crozet’s Cottage Gardener, she complained that hers “wilted.” She actually meant that the branches drooped, giving a sad appearance.

Any tree that has been bound up for several days will be artificially tight and upright, so time and the weight of ornaments will naturally lead to some drooping. Still, I suspect that her trees may not have been particularly fresh, exacerbating the situation. For my part, any droopiness really doesn’t bother me.

Regardless of the tree you choose, the real pleasure comes from the spirit of joy that goes with it. Enjoy your holidays, folks!