This season, I’ll be decorating a Real Christmas Tree along with 25-30 million other people in the United States. The title, Real Christmas Tree, is an official one, adopted by the National Christmas Tree Association and the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. Tree farmers are currently growing close to 350 million Christmas trees, which are located on 15,000 farms in all 50 states. In addition, these farms employ more than 100,000 people in full- or part-time positions. Now that’s something worth decorating!

In North Carolina alone, 1,300 farmers grow trees on 40,000 acres, and 98 percent of the trees are Fraser fir. Based on the number of trees harvested and cash receipts, North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry is the second largest in the country (Oregon is the leading state). Fraser firs are known to bundle and transport well due to their supple branches and fragrant needles, and as a result, they are shipped to every state and many other places around the world.

There are ten preferred Real Christmas Tree species grown by U.S. tree farmers, including white spruce, Fraser fir, Colorado blue spruce, concolor fir, Douglas fir, balsam fir, Scotch pine, noble fir, Leyland cypress and Virginia pine. It may take up to 15 years (or a little as four years) to grow a six- to seven-foot tree, however, seven years is the average number of years for production.

The Man behind the Fir

The Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), native to the Southern Appalachians, is named after John Fraser, F.L.W., F.R.H.S.*, a Scottish botanist who collected in North America, the West Indies and Russia over three decades (1780-1810). He also collected creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) in Georgia and Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) in South Carolina. christmastree_johnfraserHe trekked through the Appalachian mountains with French botanist Francois Andre’ Michaux and was one of the explorers to discover Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).

In a portrait of John Fraser, which is housed in New Hampshire’s Hunt Library, Fraser holds a mattock, a plant explorer’s tool that contains a short handle used for chopping or digging a delicate flower sprig. Often referred to as “zealous” and “indefatigable” in his collection pursuits, Fraser endured the rigors of North America and its rugged terrain. Perhaps this tool is indicative of his grit and determination to find and introduce new plants to the gardening world.

Tips for the Tree

All Real Christmas Trees benefit from having the stem recut using a sharp hand saw just prior to being placed into the stand. This fresh cut opens cells in the cambium or sap layer that allows the tree to take up water from the stand. Since our homes are warm during the winter, check the tree stand daily for water and replenish it in the stand throughout the holidays. One of the best gadgets I own (and I am not a gadget person) is a watering spout. It is basically a funnel with a long spout and a dipstick for testing the water level. No more crawling around on christmastree_wateringspoutthe floor and moving packages to and fro in order to stretch your hand into the stand. This one gadget makes tree watering an easy task!

Fraser firs hold their needles well, even when dry, and all trees may be checked for drying by tugging gently on the needles to test for needle drop. With the proliferation of energy-efficient LED string lights, heat from the light bulbs is less of a concern, but as a safety precaution, trees lights should still be unplugged or turned off when unattended.

When selecting your Real Christmas Tree this year, think about the farmer who grew your tree, and silently thank him or her each time you enjoy its fragrance this holiday season.

*Fellow of Linnean Society of London and Fellow of Royal Horticultural Society