Pining for Christmas

Real tree market remains a seasonal sensation

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The fresh smell of an eight-foot pine tree adorned in glowing lights and silver bells invigorates homes during the Christmas season. Millions of trees are purchased from converted parking lots and tree farms across the nation in preparation for Christmas, and Tennessee trees enjoy a reputation of being among the nation's best.
   "Tennessee Christmas tree farms are spread out across the state," says Rob Beets, a horticulture specialist with Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "The types of trees grown depend on the geography and climate of the region, from mountainous trees like firs and spruces in Upper East Tennessee to warm-weather wetland trees like pines and Leyland Cypress in West Tennessee."
   Nurseries in Carter and Johnson counties feature cut-your-own, wholesale and balled-and-burlapped tree varieties. Many popular tree varieties include white pine, Virginia pine, Scotch pine, blue spruce, Norway spruce and Fraser fir.
   The state's varied terrain of the Northeast Tennessee mountains and flatlands of West Tennessee diversify the types of trees consumers bring home. Selecting the right tree to fit that house or apartment is critical, according to agriculture experts.
   "To get the most out of your Tennessee tree, you need to know what you want and how to take care of it," said Margie Baker of TDOA. "Measure the space where you want your tree to go before you head out to the farm."
   One of the most consistently popular tree choices, both locally and nationally, is the Fraser fir. A dark blue-green tree renowned for its pleasant scent, the Fraser fir was named for John Fraser, a Scot botanist who explored the southern Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century. The species is sometimes called Southern balsam or Southern balsam fir.
   Locally, the Fraser fir is known as "She balsam" because of the resin filled blisters on the tree's trunk. Red spruce, often associated with Fraser fir, is called "He balsam" and lacks the distinctive blisters.
   Tree experts advise shoppers to make a fresh cut off the bottom of the trunk one half-inch from the bottom just before putting it in the stand. A cut stump gets a crusty sap seal and air in the water vessels which lessens a tree's water absorption capacity. A fresh cut will reopen the pores that take up water.
   "When you get home, make a fresh cut across the base of the trunk, or have your tree farmer do that for you before you leave the farm," said Baker. "Immediately place the tree in a water-holding stand and keep the cut covered in water. If the base of the tree dries out, a seal will form and you will need to make a new cut."
   The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) reports that plain tap water is the best source to keep a tree fresh and hearty through Christmas. NCTA advises keeping the tree's stand full of water at all times and checking the water level daily. The stand you use should hold at least one quart of water for every inch diameter of the trunk after the tree is in the stand.
   In addition to picking a tree, many local merchants offer hot cider or other refreshments at their farms and also sell wreaths, roping and garland in addition to trees. Some farms offer wagon rides, petting zoos or gift shops as part of the tree-cutting experience.
   "Growers realize that choosing the tree is a memory-making experience, a holiday project, so they tailor their operations to make the experience as much fun as possible," said Baker.
   Few realize that the use of decorated trees as the centerpiece of the seasonal celebration is a relatively recent tradition in America. Most historians agree that the first decorated Christmas trees appeared in the United States during the mid-1800s.
   According to the NCTA, every acre of Christmas trees grown produces the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. In the United States there are approximately one million acres of growing Christmas trees producing oxygen for roughly 18 million people a day, according to NCTA.
   A Wisconsin-grown Fraser fir tree will be the official White House Christmas Tree this season. The Blue Room Christmas Tree will be officially presented to Laura Bush on Dec. 1 by Jim and Diane Chapman, owners of Silent Night Evergreens in Endeavor, Wisc. The Chapmans earned this honor by winning the NCTA's national Christmas Tree contest and becoming grand champions.