Evergreens were used in solstice celebrations as a reminder that green plants would return in summer when the sun god became strong again. Early Romans celebrated the solstice to honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans believed that the solstice was a sign that farms and orchards would soon be green and fruitful again. They decorated their homes with evergreen boughs in celebration.
Although the first written documentation of adorning an evergreen tree was in Latvia, the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree inside the house is thought to have begun in Germany. It is also believed that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. In the United States, Christmas trees were originally thought to be associated with paganism — but now this symbol is one of the most widely recognized traditions of the Christmas season.
As of 2013-14, Michigan had 560 Christmas tree farms operating on 27,200 acres, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. These farms are spread out over the state, but seven counties make up 59 percent of all Christmas tree acres. The three most commonly grown species are Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, and Scotch pine — these three species comprise 60 percent of all the Christmas tree acreage in Michigan. NASS estimated in 2013 that Michigan growers sold 1.69 million trees that had a farm level value of $30.6 million with another $4.1 million in sales of wreaths and other cut greens.
For those who still have yet to head out to a Michigan farm to cut or pick up a Christmas tree, here is a list of species and their characteristics that may help decide which to choose this season:
Balsam Fir needles are ¾ to 1½” in length and last a very long time. This tree has a dark-green appearance and has a nice fragrance that will last throughout the Christmas season.
Concolor Fir have small, narrow needles that are 1- to 1½-inch in length and occur in rows. They have good foliage color, good needle retention and a pleasing shape and aroma.
Colorado Blue Spruce have sharp needles that are 1- to 1½-inch in length. They are bluish-gray in color. Needles have a unique smell when crushed. This type of Christmas tree has good symmetrical form, attractive blue foliage and good needle retention.
Douglas Fir trees have soft 1- to 1½-inch needles that are dark green to blue green in color. The needles radiate in all directions from the branch, and the needles have a sweet smell when crushed.
Frasier Fir is one of the most popular Christmas trees in Michigan. They are native to North Carolina and Virginia. They have a nice blue green color to the tops of the needles and are silver underneath. They have very good needle retention and their branches turn slightly upward. They also have a nice scent.
Scotch Pine needles are bright green, 1 inch in length, and do not fall — even when they are dry — and so provide excellent needle retention. It is a common Christmas tree in the U.S. because it has great keepability and will remain fresh throughout the holiday season.
White Pine is the largest pine in the U.S. and is Michigan’s state tree. The white pine has soft, flexible needles and is bluish-green in color. Needles are 2½ to 5 inches long. White pines have good needle retention but little aroma. They are not recommended for heavy ornaments.
White Spruce is excellent for ornaments. Its short, stiff needles are ½- to ¾-inch long and have a blunt tip. They are bluish-green to green in color and have a unique aroma when needles are crushed. They have excellent foliage color and have a pleasant, natural shape.
Happy tree hunting.
— This was written by Nikki Rothwell, a Michigan State University Extension district horticulturalist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.