Closeup of branch with pine needles

We invited forest specialist Kevin Zobrist to give us his perspective on Christmas trees:

There’s a reason Washington is the “Evergreen State”

Several western Washington native tree species—particularly Douglas-fir, grand fir, and noble fir—have a national reputation as quality Christmas trees. Grand fir and Douglas-fir grow naturally throughout western Washington, while the noble fir’s natural range is at high elevation in the Cascades from approximately Snoqualmie Pass southward. Each species has different advantages. I have always favored the true firs (as opposed to Douglas-fir) for how they look, their longevity after cutting, and, perhaps most importantly, how they smell. When I teach classes on native trees, I have participants pinch off needles from different samples, break them in half, and sniff. When it comes to grand fir, the response is always “it smells like Christmas.” Other true firs have a similar fragrance—a rich balsam scent that many people associate with the season.

Creating memories

I think the best part of choosing a fresh-cut Christmas tree, whether U-cut or pre-cut, is the family memories it generates. Christmas tree lots and farms sell experiences as much as trees. Some of my strongest holiday recollections involve getting the tree. I looked forward to that day almost as much as Christmas itself. Early on the first or second Saturday of December and after a slight detour for an enormous breakfast at Ken’s Truck Stop, we’d head out to a local Christmas tree farm, usually in North Bend. Recalling those days brings many things to mind—the crisp air, the smell of fresh-cut trees, hay rides, candy canes, and hot apple cider.

These days we typically get a tree from a lot, since there is one within walking distance of our house. I simply carry the tree home instead of worrying about how to transport it in a much-too-small car. Even this produces fond memories when, just as before, we meticulously try to pick the perfect one. During the big snow and deep freeze of December 2008, all the trees remained baled and frozen in big green blocks. I had to make a choice without knowing what the tree would look like. Once thawed, it unfolded into one of the best-looking trees we ever had.

All trees are not the same

Grand firs have been our standard, though in recent years we have “upgraded” to noble fir. Nobles are more expensive and their fragrance is not as strong as a grand fir, but they are wonderful in appearance. They have a slight blue tint due to two stripes on each side of their needles (grand firs only have them on the bottom). These stomatal bands reveal the location of the tree’s breathing pores. Nobles are a little more open than grand fir, which is nice for displaying ornaments.

Fresh vs. faux

In recent decades, the popularity of artificial trees has increased immensely, although they don’t have the natural look, feel, and fragrance of a real tree. There are advantages. Faux evergreens don’t make a mess, need watering, dry out, or require disposal every year, and for those with allergies, they offer a good alternative. They also don’t bring in bugs, although I appreciate even this part of the real tree experience. Every year a small spider, usually beautifully colored, is brought in on our tree. It is attracted to the light of the star at the top and builds a small web around it. I have developed a fondness for these “Christmas spiders.”

There are legitimate reasons for going artificial, but the idea that it is more environmentally friendly because it doesn’t involve cutting a live tree represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how Christmas trees are grown. No forests are leveled to produce Christmas trees. Rather, they are grown on farms and are a relatively eco-friendly form of agriculture since they do not require the same sort of annual tillage and soil disturbance as other crops. The number of young, immature trees left to continue growing far exceeds the number cut, and farms plant a replacement for each one, providing a sustainable supply year after year along with continuous vegetative cover that provides wildlife benefits.

Fresh-cut Christmas trees are a fully renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable product. As they grow, they sequester carbon that is released slowly during decomposition then recaptured by the next rotation of trees. In contrast, artificial trees are produced from nonrenewable petroleum-based chemicals that produce significant carbon emissions and other pollutants during their manufacture.
Their eventual disposal is not environmentally friendly.

Fresh-cut tips:

  1. The tree always looks much smaller on the lot than in your living room, so be conservative on size.
  2. Make sure the tree is correctly labeled and priced for its species. I often see grand firs labeled as Douglas-firs, noble firs marked as grand firs, etc., especially on lots. Native Trees of Western Washington (WSU Press) can help you accurately identify the species you want.
  3. Look for healthy green needles. Shake the tree to make sure there is not excessive needle drop.
  4. At home, put your tree in water right away. If you are not going to set it up immediately in its stand, leave it in a bucket of water in an unheated area to avoid excessive drying.
  5. Make a new cut on the bottom of the trunk before putting it in the tree stand, as the exposed initial cut will have sealed over, inhibiting water uptake.
  6. Keep the bottom of the trunk in constant contact with water—don’t let the reservoir dry up. For the first few days you may have to add water several times a day, so check it frequently.
  7. Use plain water—there is no need to add preservatives or other chemicals.
  8. After the holidays are over, recycle your tree. In many neighborhoods, a local non-profit group such as the Boy Scouts will pick it up from your curb on a donation basis. The trees they collect are chipped and given new life as natural mulches. If you have commercial yard waste pickup, you can cut the tree up and put it in your yard waste bin to become compost. Do NOT discard your tree by dumping it in a greenbelt or natural area.

Kevin Zobrist is the author of Native Trees of Western Washington: A Photographic Guide. He is an associate professor at Washington State University and oversees the Extension Forestry program in Snohomish, Skagit, King, Island, and Whatcom Counties. He spends his time on public education, outreach, and applied research, working primarily with small forest landowners. Kevin and his colleagues offer classes, workshops, webinars, tours, and field days. They also provide online resources and “how to” publications. He can be reached at kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu.

Native Trees of Western Washington cover Photo of Kevin Zobrist