Late frost edges Christmas tree crop

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Now that the turkey is sandwich meat, the familiar evergreen scent of a full-bodied, 8-foot Fraser fir waiting to be decorated will fill homes as the Christmas season swings into high gear.
   However, a late spring frost has diminished the Christmas tree harvest in the mountainous areas of Tennessee and western North Carolina this year, according to some growers and sellers.
   "A 6-foot tree from last year that you were counting on to be a 7- or 8-foot tree this year didn't happen," said Jeremy Clarke, manager of Oaks Nursery in Hampton.
   Clarke said a late spring frost killed several trees, dropping this year's harvest significantly.
   He said Oaks Nursery harvested between 4,000 and 5,000 Christmas trees this year on approximately 200 acres of land on Buck Mountain. He said the nursery also shipped trees from Florida to California and even sent a couple to the Bahamas last year.
   Still, most local vendors report tree quality and quantity to be strong.
   "We'll have anywhere from 650 to 800 trees," said Brian Craft, who co-owns Landscape Creations. A small trailer and outdoor flood lights illuminate Craft's tree selection, which he imports from North Carolina.
   "We started cutting about six days ago," said Craft, who noted the largest tree wholesalers began cutting trees in late October. He added that the frost and mid-summer drought had not damaged tree quality too severely.
   Tammy and David Ward at Betsy Town Snow Shack have been selling trees at the corner of West G Street and West Elk Avenue for the past three years.
   "It got a lot of farms up there, but we were lucky to get fresh trees," said Tammy Ward.
   The couple said the frost had diminished their tree supply since a longtime relationship with a North Carolina vendor allowed them to keep fresh trees moving in each week until Christmas.
   "We don't buy them in bulk by a lot," said Tammy Ward. "We can go and get fresh trees that are cut immediately."
   David Holsclaw with River Gardens nursery on West Elk Avenue stated that trees purchased from growers in Spruce Pine and Elk Park, N.C., did not seem to suffer any ill effects from the frost.
   Between 45 and 70 trees had been trucked into town to River Gardens since last weekend, he said.
   He also said that while the late spring frost concerned many growers, the market price for trees appeared to remain competitive.
   "The prices are pretty competitive from last year," Holsclaw said.
   If evergreen scent is overpowering, Holsclaw said River Gardens carries a species called the "concolored" tree, which emanated a citrus smell similar to a grapefruit. River Gardens also carries the traditional faves of white spruce and blue spruce trees.
   Christmas trees range from table-top variety of two or three feet to 20-foot giants. Prices range from $25-$30 for a 6-foot fir to upwards of $50 to $75 for a 10- or 12-foot tree.
   Tree growers agreed that 7- to 8-foot Fraser firs ranked as the most popular among customers.
   "The Fraser is the best because it holds the needles a lot longer than most," said Clarke.
   An enemy Fraser firs do not have to fight is the southern Pine beetle, which has plagued Southern Appalachia's white pine population.
   Christmas tree types range from the "ball and burlap" trees with their roots wrapped in tact to Christmas trees already cut above the root.
   Once a customer has bought the tree, maintaining the fir's life and beauty through Christmas can be a challenge.
   Once you get the tree home, sellers urge placing the tree in a tree stand with at least one gallon of water.
   "It will drink the whole thing dry in the first two days," said David Ward, who has worked harvesting Christmas trees with his father since he was a youngster.
   "You should let it stand in the water for a couple of days before you decorate it," added Tammy Ward.
   Tree sellers also agreed the scent and sentiment of a real Christmas tree kept buyers coming back year after year.
   "They say it's just not like Christmas without a real tree," said Clarke. "Around Thanksgiving is about the only time the whole family gets together and can go pick out a tree."
   Christmas Tree Tips:
   * Before setting up the tree, make a fresh, straight cut across the base of the trunk (about a quarter inch up from the original cut) and place the tree in a tree stand that holds a gallon of water or more.
   * Keep the tree stand filled with water. A seal of dried sap will form over the cut stump in four to six hours if the water drops below the base of the tree, preventing the tree from absorbing water later when the tree stand is refilled. If a seal does form, another fresh cut will need to be made.
   * Water prevents the needles from drying and dropping off and the boughs from drooping. Water also keeps the tree fragrant.
   * Keep the tree away from heat and draft sources like fireplaces, radiators and television sets.