Berkshire naturalist Thom Smith goes looking for holiday evergreens.
While dreaming of a white Christmas, consider making it greener.
Christmas trees, the living kind, fresh cut locally by a family or the farm, continue a New England tradition. Christmas trees give open space for wildlife. They help cleanse the air and produce oxygen, and it’s just plain fun to load the kids in the car and visit a Christmas tree farm, at least once, even if you do own an artificial, pre-lighted, hypoallergenic plastic tree. The scent of a fresh fir is magical and hard to imitate.
In a time of urgency over greenhouse gasses and gradual warming of earth’s surface, it seems even more important to reduce what some call our carbon footprint — our negative impact on the environment.
Bringing locally grown elements into the holiday can help. In the case of Christmas Trees, it cuts down on the burning of fossil fuels to make and ship artificial trees from Korea, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, while encouraging local agriculture that is good for our local economy and environment. Living trees are a renewable resource easily given a second life after the holidays as compost or mulch.
Christmas trees are not all the same, and most local farms offer several kinds with different fragrances, needle holding and firmness of branches. The most common include firs, spruces and pines. And not all are created equal. The cleanest and most fragrant is the balsam fir, with the Fraser and Douglas fir and white pine all running a close second. The Scotch pine isn’t far behind. Among the spruces, first prize goes to the blue, with white a distant second and Norway running last.
Unlike other evergreens, the cones on a fir grow upwards, candle-like. The balsam has fragrant, short, dark green flat needles, with silvery white stripes below. On lower branches they generally occur in two rows along sides of the branch, 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches long. Bark is thin, gray, smooth with resin blisters; brown and scaly on older trees. It retains its dark-green appearance and fragrance throughout the Christmas season. Balsam fir and Fraser fir have many characteristics in common. In the Douglas fir, needles are dark green or blue green, 1 to 1 ½ inches inches long and soft to the touch.
Blue spruce has sharp needles which are 1 to 1 ½ inches in length. This species is bluish-gray in color and has a bad odor when needles are crushed. White spruce has short, stiff needles that are ½ – 3/4 in. long and have a blunt tip. Bluish-green or green in color, the needles also have a harsh aroma when crushed. Norway spruce is easily identified by its dark green needles and drooping branches. Needles are 4-sided (rectangular in section), 1/2 to 1 inch long, and sharp to somewhat blunt at the tip.
The white pine has needles in bundles of five, and they are soft, flexible, bluish-green, 2 ½ to 5 in. long, and have little aroma. Needles of Scotch pine come in bundles of two. They vary in length, ranging from slightly over 1 inch for some varieties to nearly 3 inches for others. Color ranges with bright green to dark green to bluish tones. The undersides of Scotch pine needles have several prominent rows of white openings.
“What could be simpler or more natural?” says Bob Scott, Former President of the National Christmas Tree Association. “Buying a real Christmas tree is definitely an environmentally sound choice.”
And finally, remember trees look much smaller in a field with the sky as the ceiling than they do inside a living room. Take along a tape measure.
Berkshire tree farms
Here are a list of local tree farms we’ve tracked down. We encourage you to call ahead to check on trees and weather before you head out.
Crane Hill Tree Farm
Cut-your-own or pre-cut Balsam Fir and Fralsam Fraser / Balsam crosses. Trees up to 10 feet tall.
Open 9 a.m. to sunset Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December.
The Spencer Family, 233 Johnson Hill Road, off Route 8, Washington
Frederick Christmas Tree Farm
Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir, White Pine and White Spruce
360 Washington Road, Route 8, Hinsdale
Ioka Valley Farm
White Spruce, Fraser Fir, Concolor Fir, Canaan Fir
3475 Route 43, Hancock
Open weekends Thanksgiving through Christmas from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with hayrides, popcorn and cocoa, wreaths and decorations. Santa often visits on the first weekend in December. Calf-A open for winter breakfasts 8 a.m. to noon.
Itty Bitty Farm
Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir
1100 Route 9, Windsor
Open Thursday and Friday 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
413-684-3268, email@example.com, ittybittyfarm.com
Justamere Tree Farm
Fraser and Balsam fir
J.P. and Marian Welch
Choose-and-cut or pre-cut trees, open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in December. Wreaths and swags made on the farm. Post-and-beam barn gift shop with organic maple syrup and maple products and hand-crafted brooms.
248 Patterson Road, Worthingto
Seekonk Tree Farm
Cut-your own Balsam fir, concolor fir, Fraser fir, white or Meyer spruce, white pine, and pre-cut Fraser fir
Open through Dec. 24, Monday to Friday, 12:30 to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
32 Seekonk Cross Road, Great Barrington
Balsam fir from a third generation family farm in Maine. Wreathes, garlands and kissing balls.
Open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
119 Park St., Great Barrington
In the photo at the top, Dorothy and Mark Alford’s family chooses a tree at Crane Hill Tree Farm. Photo by Susan Geller (taken Dec. 2009)