Vail Daily column: Finding the perfect natural Christmas tree
December 21, 2013
In the words of Clark Griswold, my holiday alter-ego, "We're kicking off our fun old fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols."
That's right. It's time to get "the tree." But before you scramble into the wilderness and cut down a 15-foot blue spruce with a family of squirrels in it, let's go over the specs you need to consider. Different species have different qualities, such as needle softness, fragrance, firmness of branches, needle holding and shape. So which species makes the best holiday specimen?
Fir trees HAVE SEVERAL BENEFITS
With lots of conifers to choose from, firs are an excellent choice. Dark-green and sweet smelling, their fragrance alone makes them a popular variety. Fir needles are flat and friendly, and hold onto the tree for a while, so you don't have to worry about stabbing yourself while walking around barefoot.
BE CAREFUL WHEN CHOOSING A SPRUCE
Spruces present more spiky situations, but their symmetrical form and colorful foliage make up for it. They will also be able to support heavier ornaments. The Forest Service however, asks that you spare the Colorado Blue Spruce, our state tree. Our other local variety, Engelmann spruce, looks just as beautiful. In fact, they're hard to distinguish from blue spruce — some even think they have begun to hybridize. As a general rule, if it has that blue tinge to it, let it be. Blue spruce are also more likely to be growing near the water, while its Engelmann cousin can tolerate drier hillsides.
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PINES A SUSTAINABLE CHOICE
Pines will provide longer needles than a fir or spruce. A super sustainable choice would be to harvest a lodgepole pine, and even better, harvest one in a crowded stand to help promote the growth of the remaining trees! Having a lodgepole as a Christmas tree is a bit of an acquired taste, with its long flexible branches and slender shape. And you could always try to be an ironic hipster and decorate an aspen.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
Before you bring home your specimen, determine where in your home it's going to be. Do you want a Charlie Brown tree that can live on your kitchen counter? Or a Rockefeller Center tree to fill your tall ceilings? Be cautious; that tree is bigger than it appears and cutting down a tree over 15 feet high is against the rules! If you have an 8 foot ceiling, subtract 1 foot for the topping ornament and about half a foot for the stand. Also keep in mind the width of the branches, or you may end up sleeping under your tree. If you want to place your tree in the corner of the room, it might be to your advantage if you choose a tree that is flat or bare on one side.
Before you pick up your saw, take a step back and examine your tree to be. Run your fingers down the branches; the needles should be flexible and resilient. Give it a good shake to see if needles fall off, and to ensure there are no hitchhikers. And then, of course, cut with caution and don't forget to yell, "timber!"
If you're looking for perfection, there are Christmas tree lots and fake astroturf trees. But if you are adventurous and willing to harvest your own tree, you are guaranteed freshness. This is the key to having a tree that smells the best and lasts the longest! Just make sure you follow proper guidelines and purchase a permit from the U.S. Forest Service before you go poaching trees.
Happy holidays and happy tree hunting! May your house be perfumed with the forest, bring new traditions to your family and shade your many presents.
Brittany Bobola is a multi-season naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. Come join her for nature walks daily at 2 p.m.