Oh Christmas Tree... What Kind are You?

November 30, 2020

We are entering the holiday season when Christmas Trees are all around us. Why not make it into a fun learning experience on trees and how to identify them? Did you know that Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada? In the US alone, there are close to 15,000 farms growing approximately 350 million Real Christmas Trees on about 350,000 acres of land. And for every Christmas tree harvested, 1 to 3 seedlings are planted the following spring. Replanting is very important for tree farmers because it takes years to grow a Christmas tree. The average growing time is 7 years, but it can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of typical height (6-7´).

Christmas trees belong to a group of trees called Conifers which has more than 550 species. Conifer comes from the Latin words Conus (cone) and ferre (to bare) meaning cone bearing. The cones house the reproductive parts of coniferous plants. Most Conifers bear male and female cones on the same plant and all are wind-pollinated. The leaves on Conifers are often needle-shaped and often have a waxy-like surface that keeps them from losing water in dry environments and from freezing. Most Conifers are evergreens, so they carry on photosynthesis on sunny, winter days when most broad-leafed trees are leafless.

With more than 550 species of Conifers, how many types of Christmas trees do you think there are? There are 16 types of Christmas trees including Red Cedar, Arizona Cypress, Leyland Cypress, Virginia Pine, White Pine, Scotch Pine, Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce, White Spruce, Noble Fir, Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir, Grand Fir, Douglas Fir, Canaan Fir, and Concolor Fir.

Cedar trees are native to the western Himalayas, but now they can be found in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and almost every state to the east of these states. The Red Cedar has a strong fragrance and a pyramid-like shape, but sometimes, it can have more of a pencil shape.

With only 24 types of cypress trees in the world, they all vary in appearance and aren't the most common type of Christmas tree. The Arizona Cypress is native to the southwestern US and has a large cone-like shape. It is blueish green in color, has a medium fragrance and can grow up to 60 feet tall. The Leyland Cypress is another unique tree because it has the shape of a Christmas tree, but its leaves are feathery. It is great for those with allergies because it doesn't give off an aroma. Grown most commonly in the southern US, it can grow to be 70 feet tall.

Pine trees are another species of evergreen and make ideal Christmas trees because of their unique shapes and colors. The White Pine has a lighter color and features blueish green needles, a mild fragrance and a tall stature, however, their branches aren't as strong as other trees. The Scotch Pine is native to Europe and Asia, but now grows in the eastern US. It is a popular because it has strong branches, a medium fragrance and a dark green color. The Virginia Pine is grown in the eastern and southern US and is a stout tree with heavy foliage. It has a medium fragrance and short, twisted needles which make it easy to identify.

Spruce trees are evergreen and grow in a conical form. When left in the wild, they can grow between 60 feet and 200 feet tall. Native to the Rocky Mountains, the Blue Spruce has dense foliage and looks like it's dusted in snow with its waxy grayish-blue needles. It has a strong fragrance and perfect shape. The Norway Spruce is native to Europe but is now commonly found in the US. This tree can grow up to 180 feet tall and has a lean stature, dark green color and medium fragrance. The White Spruce is similar to the Blue Spruce with an even more frosted color. It grows all over North America and has strong branches.

Fir trees are evergreens and a very popular type of Christmas tree because they keep their leaves throughout the year. The Noble Fir has a strong fragrance which many people associate with the Holiday season. Its strong branches are perfect for decorating. The Noble Fir grows in the Pacific Northwest and has a dark green color. The Douglas Fir has a grand pyramid shape which is the reason nearly half of all Christmas trees in the US are Douglas Firs. Grown predominantly in the Pacific Northwest, the Douglas Fir is desirable because of its dark green color, seasonal smell and full body. Balsam Firs are one of the most fragrant Christmas trees and are grown from Northern Alberta down to Pennsylvania.  They have more of a cone-like shape than other Firs which makes them ideal for tight spaces. The Fraser Fir is very similar to the Balsam Fir in color, shape and aroma, but it has a lighter tone to its needles. The Fraser Fir is grown at elevations above 4,500 feet in the Southern Appalachian mountains. The Grand Fir gives off a strong scent and has a robust body with yellowish green needles. Grown from British Columbia down through Montana and into Northern California, this tree is popular in the inland states. The Canaan Fir is a hybrid between the Balsam Fir and the Fraser Fir. Grown in the mountains of West Virginia, it has a rich green color, a medium fragrance and strong branches for decorating. The last of the firs is the Concolor Fir. It has a large, round body and a blueish green hue to its needles. It is often referred to as a "White Fir" because of its appearance. The Concolor Fir is native to the western US.

As you noticed reading about each type of tree, they grow best in different parts of Canada and the US. That's because each type of tree requires specific soil conditions and growing conditions to thrive. As with any other plant, the acidic levels, soil composition, and drainage all play a factor in how well the tree will grow. Pine trees prefer a sandy soil while spruce and fir prefer a clay soil. Where certain types of trees are grown on a farm will depend on the landscape, as well as, the state and region as a whole. Knowing where these trees grow and what's available in the area helps with identification.

To learn more about Christmas Trees, visit The National Christmas Tree Association website. There, you'll find the history of Christmas trees, Fake vs. Real, tree varieties, environmental benefits, the competition to provide the annual White House Christmas Tree, Holiday Safety, a Teacher's Corner with educational ideas for incorporating agriculture into your lesson plans, and fun kid's games.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.