The University Record, December 3, 2001

Construction, holiday traditions tied to evergreen trees

By Lesley Harding

(Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
On Nov. 28, the lights twinkled and the ornaments shone as Americans took part in a long-standing tradition—the lighting of the National Holiday Tree. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, started the tradition, and in 1923 President Calvin Coolidge instituted the National Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.

Beneath the holiday cheer, this year’s tree is a white fir (Abies concolor). Native to the western United States, these trees can grow as tall as 150-feet and as old as 350.

“Fir trees are very popular,” says Burton Barnes, professor of natural resources and environment. “They’re known for their flat, well-attached needles that resist dropping off.”

“The national tree varies each year,” says Barnes, “from a pine tree to spruce, fir tree to a Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which isn’t a true fir.”

Probably most fitting for this holiday season would be a tree similar to one developed by geneticists at Michigan State University. Barnes says it is a hybrid combination of our native red (Picea rugens), white (Picea glauca) and blue spruces (Picea pungens).

An estimated 35 million Americans will enjoy the holiday season with a few traditions of their own, possibly including the purchase of a real tree. Picking the perfect tree is a personal preference, says Barnes. Each fir has its own personality.

One of the most common types is a pine. The Scots pine or Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), named after Scotland, is usually the pine tree of choice, says Barnes. Our native eastern white pine (the Michigan state tree, Pinus strobus,) is also occasionally available. While these trees are growing, they’re sheared to look more like small bushes, and their branches are cut into a conical shape. This helps the pines grow bushier to support lights and other ornaments. Some people select Scots pines that have been sprayed blue or blue-green to enhance the tree’s color.

Spruce trees are another good option. Their needles are shorter than the pine’s two-to four-inch needles and they’re stiffer. These hardy needles stand up well to ornaments and lights. Barnes says, however, if you’re looking for a tree with very long-lasting needle retention, don’t select a spruce. Their needles are attached differently than the fir trees and tend to drop more quickly.

The true firs are another popular choice, especially in Michigan. There is the native balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and also the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) from the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Fir trees have dark green or silvery-green needles that are flat and well attached. The needles are about an inch long, and the trees will retain their needles and last for two weeks or more. Another good choice, but not a true fir, is the Douglas fir. It is noted for attaining huge sizes in the Pacific Northwest. It has similar characteristics to the true firs.

Whatever your tree of choice, Barnes suggests a little trimming when you get it home. Many of the trees that aren’t freshly cut have been around for a couple of days. Barnes says to cut off 1–2 inches of wood at the base of the tree to get fresh tissue exposed. Put the tree in water right away and keep it watered throughout the holiday season. Commercially-prepared chemicals also can help keep your tree looking fresh.

Another way to ensure that your tree lasts through the holidays is to cut one of your own at a local farm. This way your tree will be fresher than if it were cut elsewhere and shipped to a store.

Tree facts

  • There are approximately 33 million real holiday trees sold each year in the U.S.

  • Real trees are grown in all 50 states and in Canada

  • For every real tree harvested, two to three seedlings are planted the following spring. In the spring of 2001, more than 73 million seedlings were planted.

  • There are approximately one million acres currently producing holiday trees. Each acre provides the daily oxygen requirement of 18 people.

  • It can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of average retail sale height (6 feet).

  • The top tree-producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin.

  • Ann Arbor will offer curbside tree pickup for two weeksstarting the second full week of January. Trees should be placed on the curb during regular trash pickup.