Christmas Tree 101 | Types, Tips & Trivia

A beginner’s guide to popular Christmas tree types, tips on bringing home the best one for your family, and a grab bag of New England Christmas tree trivia.

By Yankee Magazine

Oct 17 2017


Loading up a freshly cut tree at Allen Hill Farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, a family-run operation now in its sixth generation.

Photo Credit : Mark Fleming • Styling by Korey Seney
Loading up a freshly cut tree at Allen Hill Farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, a family-run operation now in its sixth generation.
Loading up a freshly cut tree at Allen Hill Farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, a family-run operation now in its sixth generation.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming • Styling by Korey Seney


A New England–centric compendium of tree trivia.

  • The first indoor Christmas tree in America is thought to have been put up in 1777 in Windsor Locks, CT, by a German POW captured at the Battle of Bennington.
  • Harvard professor Charles Follen of Lexington, MA, is credited with popularizing the spread of decorated Christmas trees in the U.S. after a description of his tree in 1832 was published by a visiting journalist.
  • Another Harvard professor, Hermann Bokum, further boosted the Christmas tree’s profile with his 1836 holiday book, A Stranger’s Gift, which included the first Christmas tree image published in the U.S.
  • New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce reputedly was the U.S. president responsible for introducing the Christmas tree to the White House, back in 1853.
  • In 1923, Calvin Coolidge held the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn. Back then, the tree was a 48-foot cut balsam from Coolidge’s home state, Vermont; today it’s a living blue spruce from Pennsylvania.
  • Over the past 50-odd years, only three trees from New England have served as the official White House Christmas tree: one from Massachusetts, one from Vermont, and one “anonymously donated from New England.”
  • The tallest tree ever to grace New York’s Rockefeller Center during the holidays was a 100-foot spruce cut in Killingworth, CT, in 1999.
  • In terms of towering trees, you can’t beat the evergreens that perch atop the masts of some of New England’s most iconic tall ships each December, including the Charles W. Morgan in Mystic, CT, and the Friendship in Salem, MA.
  • In 2012, New England Christmas tree farms reaped more than $17 million in sales, according to the most recent USDA census. The state with the most farms: Connecticut (490). The state with the fewest: Rhode Island (48).
  • To see the shapeliest, most Christmas-y trees in New England, head to the Big E fair in Massachusetts, where growers from all six states compete. As of press time, the reigning grand champion (2015, 2016) was FinestKind Tree Farm of Maine.


A look at some popular tannenbaum types.

FRASER FIR(Abies fraseri)

Fraser Fir
Fraser Fir
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Quick take: Touted as the most popular tree in the U.S., the Fraser has strong branches, excellent needle retention, and a sweet-spicy scent.
Needles: Dark blue-green with silvery undersides; ½ to 1 inch long; blunted and pliable.
Fun fact: Frasers have been used for the official White House Christmas tree more than any other species.

BALSAM FIR(Abies balsamea)

Balsam Fir
Balsam Fir
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Quick take: The balsam is very similar to the Fraser, but its branches tend to be more pliable, making it a solid choice for wreaths, too.
Needles: Dark green with lighter underside; ¾ to 1½ inches long; blunted and pliable.
Fun fact: Its resin has been put to a variety of uses, including gluing cover slips to microscope slides, treating combat wounds during the Civil War, and as a cough medicine ingredient.

DOUGLAS-FIR(Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Douglas Fir
Douglas Fir
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Quick take: A popular alternative to Frasers and balsams (though not a fir at all—hence the hyphenated name), it has a more subtle pine fragrance and bendy branches that are best for lightweight ornaments.
Needles: Dark yellow-green to dark bluish green; 1 to 1½ inches long; soft and feathery.
Fun fact: Douglas-fir was used to replace the masts of the U.S.S. Constitution in 1925, when no sufficiently large white pines could be found.


White Pine
White Pine
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Quick take: Hardy and fast-growing, the white pine is usually among the more affordable tree options. It has little or no odor and is a good choice for garlands, wreaths, and centerpieces, too, thanks to its long, feathery needles and very pliable branches.
Needles: Dark green-bluish green; 2½ to 5 inches long, soft and slender, arranged in small bundles.
Fun fact: The Eastern white is the largest pine in the U.S. and the state tree of Maine and Michigan (and a favorite of Henry David Thoreau, who used white pine for his cabin in the woods).

BLUE SPRUCE(Picea pungens)

Blue Spruce
Blue Spruce
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Quick take: Its silvery color makes this one of the showiest Christmas trees. It has the best needle retention among spruces and strong, rigid branches; on the other hand, it’s quite prickly and its odor can be on the musky side.
Needles: Silvery/bluish/greenish; 1 to 1½ inches; very stiff.
Fun fact: Its Latin name was inspired by its needles (pungens means “sharp-pointed”—as in puncture).


Best practices for choosing and caring for your tree.

  • Look for a tree that’s not only the right height but also the right width for your space. Know that pre-baled trees will likely open up to 80 percent of their height.
  • Be sure to measure the maximum diameter that your tree stand can hold, since cutting away bark from a too-fat trunk will shorten a tree’s life dramatically.
  • On pre-cut trees, the needles tell the tale. If you grasp a branch between thumb and forefinger and pull, very few should come off. Bounce the tree on its stump—if it rains needles, move on.
  • Discolored foliage, wrinkled bark, or a musty odor may also signal that a tree is past its prime.
  • When a Christmas tree is cut, more than half its weight is water. Use a stand with at least a one-gallon reservoir, and make sure to keep it topped off.
  • Sap forms a seal over a stump in just four to six hours, so get your tree into water as soon as possible after it’s cut.
  • To keep your tree from drying out, position it out of the sun and away from heat, and use the coolest lighting—like mini lights and/or LEDs—you can find.

Guide to New England Christmas Tree Farms