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Branching out on your choice of Christmas tree

By Helen Roberts

Nothing quite captures the Christmas mood more than seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Whether you choose to adorn one yourself or not, the Christmas tree is decorated and celebrated in many different countries and different nations have their own favourite species. 

The foliage of the Balsam Fir.
Photo by Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS 
I am particularly picky about the species of tree our family have and the overall shape of the tree. This fussiness stems from spending time living in Canada; high standards were set when our first Christmas tree was a wonderfully large and fragrant Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), with its dark green, long lasting foliage. This tree is a very popular species used in North America for Christmas, and on our return to England I tried to find a nursery to buy a Balsam Fir for Christmas without luck. I did some research and eventually found a similar species, but also found out some interesting information about our celebrated Christmas tree.

Where does the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?


A Christmas tree. Photo by Malene Thyssen.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 
Most people know that in 1840 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought a Christmas tree over from Germany and put it in Windsor Castle. The decorated tree, surrounded by the royal family, appeared in newspaper illustrations and from then on the tradition of the Christmas tree began in Great Britain. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys, gifts, candles, sweets and cakes hung by ribbons.

Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III in 1800, however, introduced decorated trees to Great Britain even earlier. She decided to use a Christmas tree (a potted up yew tree) instead of a yew bough to be adorned with baubles, fruit, candles and presents. The tree was, therefore, not an unknown tradition in 1840, but became a common practice among the general public after the media publicity with Queen Victoria.  By 1860 the custom was firmly grounded in England.

The history of the Christmas tree goes back much further. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews used evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands in ceremony as they believed evergreens symbolised eternal life. European pagans celebrated the use of evergreens to ward off the devil, celebrate the winter solstice and provide a tree for birds during Christmas time. This tradition survived Christianity and in Germany the Yule tree was placed at the entrance to a building or in the house during the midwinter holidays.

A Christmas pyramid from approximately
1830. Picture by Klaaschwotzer,
via Wikimedia Commons.
The modern Christmas tree originated in Germany where the tree was decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden on December 24th (the religious feast day of Adam and Eve). It was also decorated with wafers (to symbolise the host) but later became cookies and candles, to represent Christ. The Christmas pyramid, a structure made from pieces of wood and decorated with figurines, evergreens and candles was also used in addition to the Christmas tree. It was the merging of these two structures in the 16th century that lead to the tradition of the modern Christmas tree.

It is rumoured that the religious reformer Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. Apparently, one night in 1536 he was walking through a pine forest and was amazed by the beauty of the stars amongst the branches of the pine trees. It inspired him to set up lights on his Christmas tree to remind his children of the starry skies. The custom was widespread within German Lutheran communities by the 18th century and was a well-established tradition by the next century.

What are the most common species of Christmas tree in the UK?


The names fir and spruce are liberally applied to anything that looks vaguely like a Christmas tree. Those of us that are botanically minded are aware that the name “fir” is applied to members of the genus Abies (spruces are Picea).

I do not generally pick the common species of Christmas tree. For a while, my husband and I used to bring in a potted up Korean Fir (Abies koreana). It was small, but perfect in shape and form, and at a young age produces very pretty cones that are violet purple in colour and stand upright on the branches. However, we moved overseas and gave our tree a new home in my parent’s garden where it promptly withered and died after being contained in a pot for about 5 years!

Over the years we decided to go bigger as our decorations got more numerous after having children. We now settle on Abies fraseri (the Fraser Fir), a north American species very similar to Abies balsamea in its form and fragrance. These species are popular in North America (the firs are firm favourites) and in England the popular fir species is the Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana). This tree is originally from Russia and is known for its ability to retain its soft, dark green needles. Its conical shape and gaps between the branches allow optimal decoration hanging. The other popular fir in this country is the Noble Fir (Abies nobilis or Abies procera), which is glaucous green in colour with an upswept open conical shape.

Blue spruce foliage.
Photo by Nickolas Titkov from Moscow, Russian Federation
It is the Norway Spruce (Picea abies), however, that most people in England consider to be the traditional Christmas tree (it is the one I always relate with my childhood Christmases’). It has a lovely forest smell, though it loses its needles more readily than the firs. Other common spruce species include Blue Spruce (Picea pungens glauca), with its vibrant blue tinge and strong citrus scent (although it is very prickly), and the Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika), which is very popular in central Europe. It has a graceful conical shape with dark green colouring, soft needles and a pleasant fragrance.

For my family, the Fraser Fir reminds us of our time living in Canada and evokes fond memories of past Christmases’ with our children. In a few years, we will probably opt for a pot grown tree, which we can then plant out – hopefully with more success than the Korean Fir!



Comments

  1. We always learned the phrase "friendly fir and spiky spruce" in our field course as a general rule of thumb for differentiating fir and spruce foliage.

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