The first Christmas Trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830’s. Originating in Germany in the 16th century, they became predominantly popular in 1841, when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s German husband) had a pine Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News.
The tradition was introduced to North America in the winter of 1781 by General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, when they held a Christmas party in Sorel, Quebec; delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.
Wide branches and long leaders looked well-proportioned in stately trees, but other conifers with their tighter ‘excurrent’ or cone-shaped forms were soon tried and tested with the Norway spruce becoming the mainstay of most homes during the latter half of the 20th century. Robust and relatively hardy to the indoor environment when they were subjected to the warmth of the central heating. They performed well if adequately watered and had a strong form and a dense cone shape that was considered ideal for most homes.
Today’s Christmas trees include the ‘traditional’ Norway spruce with its predictable growth in the field leading to a predictable ‘budget’ price tag familiar in our high streets and garden centres, however greater diversity in tree selection has been explored in recent years with needle fast (non-drop), blue and narrower formed conifers coming into homes. Trees that are less prone to cast their needles within the month of harvest and provide a perfume or more interesting colour are required to enhance the indoor performance over the traditional spruce. All are required to have a tight conical shape and sturdy primary branch structure that helped decorations to sit well while retaining needles making them better suited for keeping both ornaments and needles off the floor. In recent years its is the
In recent years its is the Nordmans fir that has become the leading choice in this wave of needlefast diversity. Although originating in Georgia it is well suited to growing in the UK higher altitude and areas of higher latitude found typically in the north and west where cooler growing and harsher conditions keep a tight growth form relatively easily. While strong leader growth can be controlled by pruning the top whorl and treatments of chemical hormone on the leaders to suppress this unwanted leader growth. Trees grown in the south and eastern counties that experience warmer growing seasons would otherwise lead to extended leader growth and less aesthetic trees however, a range of cultural and chemical treatments are typically used to control this unwanted growth in all trees as required.
In managing a Christmas tree operation, ‘pruning’ Christmas trees is one of the most important cultural activities for the grower. Regardless of the species, shaping is necessary to attain and maintain the proper and desired “Christmas tree shape.” Hand pruning of the top whorl of Nordman fir is typically undertaken in June, then the tree is initially shaped by taking the lateral growth points out to encourage thicker internal growth of the crown. Later in the year the trees are then sheared with long pruning knives that look like handmade samurai swords to shape all Christmas trees (fir being pruned before going back to spruce).
This manipulation of the shape is highly critical through controlling a combination of external growth points and influencing the flow and accumulation of internal hormones through cultural pruning. Where running alone does not have the desired effect growers often revert to applying external chemical control while more forward thinking growers have been experimenting with more experimental ‘nicking or notching’ the main stem to influence the internal flow of natural chemicals through targeted ‘cuts’ into the main stem to inhibit or stop flow up or down the tree of hormones that inhibit or stimulate bud growth and development. Most recently trials have been conducted applying rubber bands that restrict these naturally occurring hormones hormone and nutrient flow, you can look out for the residue of these bands on the main stem typically found underneath the last but one whorl of growth.
So what does a good Christmas tree look like? The beauty is in the eye of the beholder! What we can say because the market is shaped by people’s choice is that most people agree a lack of needles dropping is a must, however, the spruce still is grown because its easy to grow and therefore sells at a good price. A nice to have, is the scent of fresh pine or lemon and If you ar like me then I like some of the subtle blues in the Colorado blue spruce. In the end though its all about choice and what works for your room, your pocket and your aesthetics. Narrower forms is a trend going forward and Nordmann (or Caucasian) fir (Abies nordmanniana (Stev.) Spach.) looks to stay the primary Christmas tree species, mostly grown in Denmark. Where about 1.5 million Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karst.) and 300,000 noble fir (Abies procera Rehd.) are also marketed while more and more homegrown trees are coming forward and is being encouraged.
Kevin Frediani B.Sc. (Hons), Dip. Arb. (RFS), P.G. Cert, F. Arbor. A Property Manager National Trust for Scotland & Treeconomics Associate Arboretum and heritage garden manager, former advisor to Christmas Tree producers with a professional interest in tree diversity for urban and commercial production.