NATURE NOTE - Number 82                                                                                   December 14, 2023


‘Tis the season, so Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all NATURE NOTE followers.   I suppose it is appropriate to talk about the Christmas trees we may be putting up, since about 25% of us still use real trees.  After all, they are (were?) part of nature.  Most all of these are evergreens, or conifers.  Some are common to our area and some not so much.  We talked in an earlier NATURE NOTE (Number 13) about identifying pines, so this time lets concentrate on…

Our Current topic:  Spruce, Fir and Cedar trees

Spruces and firs are frequently used for Christmas trees because of their nice shape and full foliage, but these trees are generally not native to our area. Most of the ones you buy are imported from Canada, Oregon or other states, although some are grown locally on Christmas tree farms in Virginia.  Virginia has over 460 tree farms, and is the 7th leading state with Christmas tree inventory, according to the Roanoke Times (November 28, 2023).  Folks commonly get spruces and firs mixed up, so let’s talk about the differences.  Spruce trees have needles that are sharp, four-sided, and attached to the stem on a peg-like feature.  Their cones always hang down from the limbs like pine cones.  The only spruce that grows naturally in Virginia is yellowish-green Red spruce (Picea rubens) in elevations above 4000’ in the Shenandoah National Park, a few isolated spots in the northwest part of the state, and in far Southwest Virginia.  You will see other species, such as Blue spruce, Norway spruce, and Black spruce planted as ornamentals in yards and parks, and it is possible to find some of these growing in nearby locations as a result of the spreading of the wind-born seeds from a planted tree, but you are not likely to encounter them in the deep forest.  Some are grown commercially for Christmas trees.

Fir trees (genus Abies) have needles that are attached to the branch with what looks like a little suction cup.  There are two light colored stripes on the underside of the needles.  The needles tend to grow up from the stem, leaving an almost flat surface on the bottom of the stem.  Their cones always grow up from the limb.  We have two fir trees in our general area:  the Balsam fir and the Fraser fir, although, again, neither is likely found anywhere except in the highest parts of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.  The two species are very similar in appearance. Fraser fir can be seen along the high-elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, and nation-wide, they are most the popular Christmas tree, with Oregon being the biggest producer, followed by North Carolina.  Again, they are grown mostly on tree farms.  Both of these species, as well as pine, are also major sources of paper, plywood and softwood lumber.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana - it’s actually a juniper) is also a common Christmas tree that is a native species.  These are common in the forests as well as in old fields that are no longer used for farming.  They were probably more common as Christmas trees in the past before other species were trucked in and they were often cut locally.  These are the trees with sharp, somewhat flat, scales rather than needles.  Their biggest drawback for Christmas trees is that they tend to dry out quickly, (and they stick your hands) but they are still a favorite of many families in our area that grew up with a cedar Christmas tree.  The red cedar also has many other uses: it is a favorite for wildlife, both as shelter and for the berries; it has a natural odor that repeals insects, thus it is used for cedar chests and closet linings; and its resistance to decay makes it a favorite for fence posts.

Another commercially-grown tree you will find in Christmas tree lots is the very popular Douglas fir, a native of the Pacific Northwest.   White pines and other pine species are used much less frequently and are often procured locally.

And finally:  the U.S. produces around 25 million real Christmas trees each year, with an average price of $75 each.  Europe produces almost twice that number.


I suppose you could give your scouts the assignment of identifying the Christmas tree they are using.  Many would answer “plastic”, so maybe that’s not the right approach. Regardless of what you use in your home, just be thankful that nature has given us another forest product that we take for granted, along with our furniture, flooring, roof, utility poles, fencing, signs, packaging material, decks, paper, and on and on.  We have these things because, in general, we take care of our forests for the future.  Remind your scouts of that.   Some one-third of the U. S. is stilled forested.

As we close out 2023, I want to give you some feedback about NATURE NOTE readers.  I periodically get from the council office the number of “hits” of each NN posted to the website.  These numbers grow over time, so those as far back as 2020 increase as folks go back and read old NOTES.  So a count of 2023 hits is not a good way to judge the popularity of NN, as recent months will show low numbers.  However, I recently went back and calculated the average number of hits on each NATURE NOTE for 2022.  That number was over 370 hits per NATURE NOTE.  That means someone is reading them - lots of folks.  Thanks to all of the readers of these NOTES.  I hope you are able to pass some nature interest and knowledge to your scouts.  That’s why I write them. 

Have a good holiday, and don’t forget to water your Christmas tree - unless it’s plastic.  See you with NATURE NOTE #83 on December 28. 

Bob Garst

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