Making Sense of the Christmas-Tree Market

Making Sense of the Christmas-Tree Market

For most of my time at Stephen F. Austin (SFA), I’ve wondered if the Christmas-tree market makes sense. Do we need to do something different? First, don’t be alarmed. I’m not against Christmas. I love the holiday season and celebrating our good fortune to have made it to another year. However, maybe we can finetune a few things.

Why can’t we all just put a live Christmas tree in the living room for a few weeks and then plant it outside after the holiday season — a tree with a root system? That doesn’t seem like much to ask. Right now, we grow it to kill it. And we go to a lot of trouble to do that by moving trees to market, selling them and then discarding them in a month or so at the end of the season. A lot of carbon is needed to make that happen, and we get nothing back.

I say, let’s plant live trees and make planting the Christmas tree an annual family adventure. If you run out of space, plant it somewhere else when no one else is looking. Greg Grant and I have been doing that for years. Don’t forget that late December in Texas is a fine time to be planting trees. The whole scheme is logical.

For our purpose, let’s agree that there are three kinds of Christmas trees: real, live and artificial. A real tree is one cut just above the stump, and we sell the top. For all practical purposes, it’s a dead tree. Artificial trees are generally shiny, light-weight, typically PVC, easy to assemble, last about a decade and 80% of them are made in China. It’s a dead fake tree. A live tree is one that includes a root system. It’s alive.

Why aren’t more Christmas trees sold as live trees? Well, the choose-cut-and-transport approach is an efficient system. Trees are lighter, can be cinched tight and stacked. The shipping cost per tree per mile is less than a live tree. Live trees do cost more at the consumer level, but they also hold the promise of a long-term environmental benefit to the urban landscape.

The numbers
The USA has a population of about 330 million. There are about 25–30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. That’s about 20-to-25% of the total market. Artificial trees make up the rest. We can conclude that there are more than 100 million Christmas trees displayed each year. Only a small percentage are live trees with roots.

What about Texas? Well, Texas has a population of about 30 million. In 2022, the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Asso-ciation (TCTGA) reported that there are 175 Christmas-tree farms in Texas producing some 200,000 trees annually on about 2,500 acres statewide. In the USA, Oregon wins the title with three-to-four million trees produced per year, nearly a third of the country’s Christmas trees — more than any other state — and many are exported. The art of growing Christmas trees in Texas is less than a hundred years old. In 1935, Dr. R. R. Childers of Jasper, Texas, was the first to plant Christmas trees. Since the 1970s, the Texas A&M Forest Service, Texas A&M University and Stephen F. Austin State University have initiated projects to evaluate what species are best for production, how to grow them, studied market share and evaluated sales opportunities. Today, the most commonly grown Christmas trees in Texas are Virginia pine, Afghan pine, eastern redcedar, shortleaf pine, Arizona cypress and Leyland cypress.

Texas-grown Christmas trees
Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) is the major Christmas-tree species found on Texas farms. A grower can produce a six-to-eight-foot Virginia pine Christmas tree in three-to-five years, depending on soil and climatic conditions. The TCTGA website indicates “Virginia pine trees were selected by the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association for their survivability, growth and form. They are also favored for their ability to grow across the state, which is crucial in Texas, as more than 90% of all forested land is privately owned.” In my opinion, Virginia pines are a pretty tree, but they need a pest-management system, and most do not live long as a landscape tree.

Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica) does quite well in Central and West Texas but is typically a poor performer in East Texas. It can tolerate hot, dry conditions but is susceptible to Diplodia fungal attack when excess water is present.

Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is truly a great landscape tree. In many ways, it’s a traditional native Christmas tree that many Southerners can recognize. It’s dense, has excellent fragrance, a dark-green color and typically makes a natural Christmas-tree shape. In the landscape, it’s tough as nails and can live hundreds of years if given a chance. There are many varieties that are of superior form but unfortunately rarely encountered.

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is native to Northeast Texas and can be pruned and trained into a Christmas-tree form. It’s adaptable and relatively pest free. As a landscape tree, it performs best in East Texas.

Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica ssp. arizonica) is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It is heat and drought tolerant, and in full-sun sites it forms a nice pyramidal shape. It demands a well-drained location. In eastern Texas, it is prone to diseases and rarely makes a long-lived tree. SFA Gardens has planted several varieties over the years. ‘Carolina Sapphire’ has a truly beautiful light-blue color and is striking as a young tree. Like so many in this genus, it does not seem to get better with age.

Leyland cypress (x Cuprocyparis leylandii) is utilized as a Christmas tree in the South because it grows very fast and can be sheared as a youngster. As a landscape tree, it gets big quickly and in many cases it refuses to grow old gracefully. It’s perfect for people with allergy problems because the hybrid tree has no pollen. This popular landscape tree is dense with short needles and, if kept in water, will outlast any other cut Christmas tree without shedding needles. It also is less likely to produce and throw sap, which can be aggravating to customers handling the trees.

There are two reasons I have been mulling over this topic for decades. First, I was a friend of JC Raulston, who directed what is now the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University. Many years ago, there was a time when bad actors in the fall would climb the JCR Arboretum fence, cut a conifer down and then escape. This was quite upsetting to JC, and he used spray paint to make the trees ugly and undesirable for the bandits. That seemed to help a little. They were after all kinds of pyramidal conifers, and he had an amazing collection that was just too tempting.

My second reason: our very own conifer garden and observations in Texas reveal that there is a treasure trove of fine-looking conifer candidates for a Christmas tree. I always thought, gee whiz, they look good and they didn’t even get a two-or-three time per year shearing. Imagine what they might look like if put into a training program specific for a Christ-mas tree.

Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar), C. libani (cedar of Lebanon) and C. deodara (deodar cedar) are often beautiful as small trees. The first two are quite slow-growing, while the deodar cedar is a bit faster (up to two feet in a season). Both like well-drained spots and do not like crowding in the landscape. In the right spot, they can live many years. There are numerous varieties of each, some with icy-blue foliage.

Arborvitaes (Thuja species) often naturally feature a Christmas-tree form, and the genus Thuja is quite varied. These are evergreen conifers and can be pruned and trained. Once in the landscape, they transition into beautiful trees if the conditions are right. Poor drainage, shade and other factors can weaken the trees, making them susceptible to pests. Once well established, they are considered drought resistant.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is probably my most radical idea for a Christmas tree. However, it can’t be just any bald cypress. Most bald cypresses are going dormant in early winter. However, Montezuma cypress and the hybrids of bald cypress x Montezuma tend to be quite evergreen if given the chance (good fertility, well-grown in the container). They are fast growing, and a salable Christmas tree could be produced in the third year. While most tree growers tend to remove the lower limbs, a Christmas-tree grower “could” skip that with a well-shaped-to-the-ground Christmas tree. It would easily survive a month as a Christmas tree in a Texas home and would tolerate being moved into the landscape. Once in the landscape, it could live a thousand years. There are other cultivars with good form and dense growth.

Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria angustifolia) has a nice shape, bold branching, proves quite hardy, yet is rarely encountered. Typically, it looks good as a Christmas tree when young. Many containerized Norfolk Island pines (A. hetero-phylla) are used as Christmas trees. While they are good indoor plants, they are prone to freezes in most Texas landscapes.

China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata) is beautiful, but the needles are sharp and can be painful. Now accepted as a form of C. lanceolata, C. unicanaliculata features soft needles and is less likely to create any pain when handling the tree. Rarely encountered, it deserves attention but is hard to find.

Cypress or false cypress (Chamaecyparis species and varieties), while not really a cypress, are members of the Cupressaceae family. There are many varieties to choose from. I consider this a short-lived conifer in East Texas, a bit prone to diseases and browning out. It’s easy to root and grow in a container.

There are numerous other possibilities. What about the yews, Taxus and Cephalotaxus? They make fine, dense Christmas-tree specimens in fairly deep shade. Thujopsis dolabrata is rarely seen, but it too makes a nice pyramidal form in the part-shade gardens of East Texas. I’ve always thought a soft-foliaged holly could make the mark as a Christmas tree, and many hollies are very well adapted to the Texas urban landscape.

The idea of living Christmas trees is certainly not mine. Many others have been preaching the idea that we should change our way of thinking about Christmas trees. With the national and international imperative to plant more trees, changing the Christmas-tree market from what it is now to a live-tree market is just a small step in finding a solution to a warming world. Still, millions of trees would be involved, and I am sure the nursery industry and the Christmas-tree growers might find mixing profit and helping the environment a good marketing idea that fits with modern consumers. Let’s keep planting. tg

Dr. David Creech
Director, SFA Gardens, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas