Friday, December 5, 2014

Christmas Trees, an updated ranking for 2014

It's that time of year again. The days are short, the air is crisp and frats are stealing conifers from university property, and you're probably thinking about getting yourself an ol' tannenbaum. If you're having trouble deciding what type of tree to get, look no further, I've got a handy guide for you here.

First of all, if you want a tree that'll last, I suggest going to a self cut place. Most trees being sold in lots were cut before thanksgiving hand have been shipped here from parts unknown (North Carolina). Often these trees are painted green to look fresher. Gross.

Now, other websites might just give you a ranking like this:

1. The true firs (Genus Abies)
Soft needles that smell of tangerines when crushed. Good needle retention. You can identify firs by the "Four F's:" firs are friendly (needles not sharp); fir needles attach flush tot he branch; fir needles are fragrant (they smell like tangerines!); fir needles are flat in cross section. Firs have good needle retention, so if you get one that has been pre-cut it'll likely keep most of its needles off your floor. Also, due to their great natural color, the firs are unlikely to be painted/died green.

2. Douglas-fir (Genus Pseudotsuga)
In botanical common names the en dash signifies a taxonomically incorrect name. Here it means the DouglasDashfir is not really a fir. But heck, it's pretty close. These guys have pretty good needle retention, but often have a very stout trunk, so you might need a pretty hefty stand.

3. Spruces (Genus Picea)
Sharper needles, retention is not as good. Don't smell as good as the firs and Douglas-firs. Spruces can be identified by the "Four S's:" spruces have sharp needles; spruce needles are square in cross section (some are more diamond shaped); spruces are stinky (they smell piney, but not in a great way); spruces are stubbly (when you remove the needles, small peg-like sterigmata remain on the branches).

4. Pines (Genus Pinus)
Bunched needles. This genus can be a bit of a mixed bag.

5. (tie) Arborvitae/Northern White-Cedar (Genus Thuja)
If you find a small one of these, an ideal specimen, maybe it'll look right. Remember what that dash in the common names kids, the Northern White-Cedar isn't a true cedar (Genus Cedrus).

5. (tie) Juniper/Eastern Redcedar (Genus Juniperus)
These can be OK if they are small and have been pre-trimmed into a proper taper. Upon close inspection, they just wont look quite right.

6. Any other conifer
Even the tamarack or larch (Genus Larix), which loses its needles.

7. Artificial trees
These are literally the worst. Why not just get a custom Fathead of a tree for you wall? Why not a potted palm tree?

Now the above would be a useful list, but it fails to take into account the nuanced differences between species within different genera. Oh, and a note about labeling. In the following list, the first number indicates the overall rank while the letter number combination is its rank within that group of plants. e.g. White fir is ranked sixth overall and the fourth among firs (F4); Serbian spruce is fifth overall and first among the spruces (S1).
1. F1. Nobel Fir--Abies procera
With its short, soft, stiff, dense needles you really can't go wrong here. Great fragrance helps too. Native to the high mountain west.

2. F2. Fraser Fir--Abies fraseri
Can have slightly shorter needles than A. procera. Still an outstanding tree. Native to high mountains in the Appalachian Range. A very, very close second.

3. F3. Balsam Fir--Abies balsamea
Very closely related to A. fraseri. Slightly thinner needles. Sometimes called Canaan fir. Native to northern temperate and boreal forests. There can be some needle retention issues with A. balsamea. Can be combined with Pinus strobus to make a Franken-tree (see below).

4. D1. Douglas-Fir--Pseudotsuga menziesii
All in all a great tree. The needles are a little thinner and longer than the above firs.

5. S1. Serbian Spruce--Picea omorika
With its outstanding narrowly tapering shape, P. omorika is a sexy looking tree. This spruce is far superior to other spruces. Additionally, the needles are not too sharp, which is nice.

6. F4. White/Concolor Fir--Abies concolor
On the plus side, A. concolor still has that great fir scent (seriously, crush a needle and just inhale it). On the other hand, the needles are kind of awkwardly long and funny looking.

7. S2. Black Spruce--Picea mariana
The shortest and softest needles of any spruce. Nice green foliage. Good branch structure. Tiny cones.

8. S3. White Spruce--Picea glauca
All in all a decent tree. Some will have cones, which are basically like free ornaments. Good ornament holding ability and needle retention. Can be combined with A. balsamea to make a Franken-tree (see below).

9. P1. Eastern White Pine--Pinus strobus
Michigan's state tree. This has soft-short needles in bunches of 5. It can be a challenge, but with the right touch it can be a great tree. It definitely has a rustic/Charlie Brown Christmas tree look.

10. S4. Norway Spruce--Picea abies
I haven't seen a ton of these offered as Christmas trees possibly because if they are not cut fresh, they tend to drop their needles pretty quickly. Their needles aren't too sharp and they can have some good structure up top for ornament hanging.

11. P2. Scotts Pine--Pinus sylvestris
Ugh. These trees are cheap. Look closely when you see one. It's probably painted green and the needles are pretty dry. They are cheap, but is it even worth it?

12. C1. Northern White-Cedar and Eastern Redcedar (Thuja occidentalis and Juniperus virginiana)
I basically said all I had to say about these guys above. They are OK, especially if you are going for a small tree that won't face a ton of up close scrutiny.

13. S5. Colorado Blue Spruce--Picea pungens
The Colorado Blue Spruce has the distinction of having the sharpest needles of any spruce. Do you like pulling needles from the bottom of your feet? If you answered yes, this tree is for you. A surprisingly common Christmas tree.

14. F3xP1. Franken-tree--Abies balsamea x Pinus strobus
It starts with a plan to save a few dollars: Why not head out to the woods and chop down your own tree? You arrive at your undisclosed wooded location but can't bring yourself to actually kill a tree. You shimmy up to the top of an A. balsamea with your ax in hand. Why are you climbing a tree with an ax? You lop the top of the tree. It looks a little sparse. For good measure you shimmy up to the top of a P. strobus and top it too. Back at home you realize both saplings are quite sparse compared to commercial Christmas trees. The only logical step is to shove both trees into the Christmas tree stand. The result doesn't look too bad, right (see below)?

15. Artificial tree...
nihilne sanctum?

There you have in gentle reader. Our ranking of Christmas Trees. Do you have a favorite species? Do you cut your own, or do you buy pre-cut trees? Where's your favorite place to get a tree?

Gentle readers, behold the Franken-tree in all its glory.

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