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Extension offers tips for buying best Christmas tree

Kurtis Keefer Lake Villkneels down saw fir tree with Ryan Palmer Ingleside for Justine Gengel Lake Villdaughter Teagan 2 Gengel

Kurtis Keefer of Lake Villa kneels down to saw a fir tree with Ryan Palmer of Ingleside for Justine Gengel of Lake Villa and daughter Teagan, 2, at Gengel Christmas Tree Farm near Lake Villa.

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Christmas Tree
Selection Guide

Christmas trees come in different varieties. Knowing the differences can make the selection process easier, said Ron Wolford, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Some of the most commonly sold varieties of Christmas trees are balsam fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and white pine,” Wolford said. “Each type has unique tree needle retention, color and fragrance.”

Wolford offers the following information about Christmas tree varieties:

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) has short, flat, long-lasting needles that are rounded at the tip and are a nice, dark green color with a silvery cast and fragrance. It is named for the balsam or resin found in blisters on bark. Resin is used to make microscope slides. It was once sold like chewing gum and was used to treat wounds in the Civil War.

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) has dark green, flattened needles; good needle retention; and a nice scent. It is pyramid shaped with strong branches that turn upward. The Fraser fir was named for botanist John Fraser, who explored the southern Appalachians in the late 1700s.

Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the most common Christmas tree variety. It has stiff, dark green needles that are 1 inch long and stiff branches that hold heavy ornaments well. It holds needles for four weeks; the needles will stay on even when it is dry. Its open structure offers more room for ornaments, and it keeps aroma throughout the season. Scotch Pine was introduced into the United States by European settlers.

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) has dark green needles 1-1/2 to 3 inches long in twisted pairs and a strong aromatic pine scent. Its strong branches enable it to hold heavy ornaments. It is a popular southern Christmas tree.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) has soft, blue-green needles, 2 to 5 inches long in bundles of five. It has a very full appearance and retains needles throughout the holiday season. Because it has little or no fragrance, it is less likely than more fragrant trees to provoke allergic reactions. Its slender branches support fewer and smaller decorations than some other types of trees. It is the largest pine tree in the United States and the state tree of Michigan and Maine.

Courtesy of University of Illinois Extension, DuPage County

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Updated: January 1, 2013 6:07AM

Some people think that a real Christmas tree is essential to a proper Christmas. If you are one of them, choosing that perfect tree can be daunting.

“The following are a few hints to help you choose that perfect tree, whether you purchase it from a neighborhood lot or a Christmas tree farm,” said Ron Wolford, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

Decide where to place the tree before heading out to buy it. Pick a spot away from heat sources, such as TVs, fireplaces, radiators and air ducts. A dried-out tree is a safety hazard. Make sure the tree is clear of doors.

Remember to choose a tree that fits where it is to be displayed. For example, if the tree is displayed in front of a large window, then all four sides should look as good as possible. If the tree is displayed against a wall, a tree with three good sides would be all right. A tree with two good sides works in a corner. The more perfect the tree, the more expensive it will be.

“There is nothing worse than bringing a tree indoors only to find it’s too tall,” Wolford said. “Use a tape measure to measure the height and width of the space you have available. Take the tape measure with you to the farm or retail lot to measure your chosen tree and bring a cord to tie your tree to the car.”

If purchasing a tree from a retail lot, go during the day. Choosing a tree in daylight is much easier than trying to pick one out in a dimly lit lot.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, consumers should not worry about the quality of trees they can find this year, no matter what the weather was like in the summer. Summer weather patterns have not affected trees harvested this year.

Wolford advises consumers to do some research on different Christmas tree varieties. Some hold needles longer or have a longer-lasting fragrance than others.

He warned that trees sold on retail lots in urban areas might have come from out of state and may have been exposed to drying winds in transit. They may have been cut weeks earlier.

“Choose a fresh tree, one that has a healthy green appearance with few browning needles. Needles should be flexible and not fall off if you run a branch through your hand,” he advised.

“Raise the tree a few inches off the ground and drop it on the butt end. Very few green needles should drop off the tree. It is normal for a few inner brown needles to drop. Make sure the handle or base of the tree is straight and 6 to 8 inches long so it will fit easily into your stand.”

Buy the tree early, before the best trees have been sold. Ask the retailer whether his trees are delivered once at the beginning of the season or at different times during the selling season. Purchasing a tree from a Christmas tree farm ensures that the tree is fresh.

If the tree will not be put up right away, store it in an unheated garage or some other area out of wind and freezing temperatures. Make a fresh 1-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of warm water.

After bringing the tree indoors, make another fresh 1-inch cut and place it in a sturdy stand that holds at least 1 gallon of water. Fill the stand with 1 quart of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk. Be sure to keep the water level above the base of the tree. If the base dries out, resin will form over the cut end. The tree will not be able to absorb water and will dry out quickly.

“According to the National Christmas Tree Association, drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does NOT improve water uptake,” he said.

“Commercially prepared mixes; aspirin; sugar and other additives added to the water are not necessary. Research has shown that plain water will keep a tree fresh.”

For more information, check out the University of Illinois Extension website “Christmas Trees and More” section at

Sarah Navrotski is the master gardener coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension, DuPage County, at 1100 E. Warrenville Road, suite 170, Naperville. Call 630-955-1123 or visit

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