ISSUE 47  |  Last-Minute Thanksgiving

How to Pick Your Perfect Christmas Tree

November 28, 2014 2:30 PM

BY Amanda Gutterman

This year I realized that I have one shot–and one shot only–at buying the right Christmas tree. First of all, they are expensive, and second, they take up a lot of space. You simply can’t go to the effort of picking a tree, bungee-roping it to the top of your car like the world’s most cumbersome dead body, hauling the thing inside, setting it up in your (dreidel-patterned) Christmas-tree stand, and sloshing it with water only to turn to your beloveds and say, “Looks like we’ve got a shedder. Let’s send ‘er back.” To be honest, I can barely convince myself to return shoes that don’t fit to the Internet from whence they came, let alone a big hulking conifer. So this year I decided to turn up the pressure and find the perfect Christmas tree, once and for all.

Photography by Michelle Slatalla

Above: An Alberta spruce.

First. There are three genera (the plural of genus–I know) of evergreen conifers that are popular Christmas tree options: spruces, pines, and firs. Let’s say you “find” a tree in a dark alley. Not going to ask. How do you tell which kind it is? It turns out that the answer is in the needles. If the needles are attached to the twig in clusters of two or more, you probably have a pine. Detecting the difference between firs and spruces is a subtler science. Spruce needles are rounded and can be rolled around in your fingers, while pine needles have two flattened-out sides and won’t roll. But don’t let the simplicity fool you when it comes to choosing the perfect tree. Within each genus is a variety of species, each with its own personal quirks. Fortunately for our purposes, the Christmas tree tradition has been around since the Renaissance so growers of spruces, pines, and firs have had time to home in on a “best of breed” to sell for the holidays.

Above: A blue spruce.

Among spruce trees, the Colorado blue spruce is the favorite Christmas tree. Like its siblings in the spruce family, Colorado blue spruces are basically the trees that you pictured inhabiting your living room since you were a kid: enormous, cone-shaped, and with branches sturdy enough to bear the weight of even the heaviest ornaments, if not a couple of children playing Tarzan. The species is famous for its strikingly silver-blue needles. In a certain light, it is nearly the same shade as the sky, and even on warm days, the Colorado blue spruce appears delicately iced with frost. One hardly wonders why the 70-something-foot Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, arguably the celebrity of the holiday season, is almost always a spruce.

Above: Blue spruce, redux.

But let’s take a moment to think before we go spruce. The tree-purchasing crew at Rockefeller Center (consider this my application) probably has a pretty large budget, and that’s fortunate for them, because the spruce is the most expensive genus. An 8-foot Colorado blue spruce can cost $300 or more. Plus, spruces’ ornament-friendly branches have a tendency to lose their needles easily; a big blue spruce is perfect for a one-time show, but since they stay fresh for an average of two weeks, it wouldn’t be the best long-term investment for a New York apartment-dweller like me who, admittedly, will try to hold onto said tree until well past New Year’s. When I need to see a blue spruce the size of a small skyscraper–sometimes we all do–I’m content to settle for a subway ride uptown.

Above: An Italian stone pine.

Do you smell something in the living room? If you do, it’s probably not because you chose the Eastern white pine. Personally, I am quite attached to that classic, old-school Christmas tree scent. So attached that when the apartment building where I grew up switched to an artificial tree in the lobby (despite the peaceful protests of my 10-year-old self) I made it my business to spray that impostor with Christmas tree fragrance every day so at least its smell would be convincing. On the other hand, there are a few good reasons to go scent-free, and the best of them is having an allergy. Pines are practically hypoallergenic. The Eastern white pine is the tallest sibling in the pine family–again, wonderful, but not quite suited to life in my apartment, or at least not if I’m in it also–and can grow 80 feet tall or higher. For me, the real draw of the Eastern white pine is the price (around $150 for an 8-footer is comparably affordable) and its amazing needle retention. That’s right, folks: pine Christmas trees will hardly shed a needle, even after weeks. Unfortunately, the paranormally needle-retaining branches aren’t strong enough to support heavier ornaments, and since I need a place to hang my Revolutionary War memorabilia and Jewish holiday themed ornaments, I have to pass on pine.

Above: A Fraser fir.

I am close to settling for a poinsettia plant–and trying to pass it off as some sort of leafy, red, dwarfish Christmas tree–when I begin to consider the fir. Each of us has different needs when it comes to Christmas trees, but for me, the fir was Goldilocks. Firs hold onto their needles (the last thing I need is more crud on the floor) not as stringently as pines, but better than spruces. Firs rate decently in ornament-hangability; their branches are stronger than pines’ and weaker than spruces’. It is reasonable when it comes to price (around $150 to $175 for an 8-foot tree) and also has that classic Christmas tree fragrance I can’t live without–perhaps not as powerfully as the spruce, but if push comes to shove, I can always dig out the spray bottle.

Above: An apartment-size Fraser fir.

The most popular firs are the Noble fir and the Fraser fir. Both come in petite sizes that would suit my apartment, and are neck-and-neck as far as our other metrics. In the end, I’m sold on the Fraser fir, not only because of the way its branches stick out at angles that are adorably awkward, especially on the smaller trees, but also because it was once dubbed the “she-balsam” because its bark leaks a kind of milky resin. I like a good story above all–as long as I don’t end up with resin goo stuck to my walls!

N.B.: Do you find it hard to separate from your Christmas tree after the holidays? What if we told said you don’t have to? See DIY: Plant Your Christmas Tree in the Garden.