Green Christmas tree isolated on white background

We did it the week after Thanksgiving; there’s a good chance you’ve done it, too.

Many of us bring evergreen trees and evergreen boughs into our buildings, making our indoor spaces festive and scented during the darkest part of the year. And most of us bringing whole trees inside decorate them with pretty baubles and sentimental ornaments.

This popular custom has roots in the recognition that certain plants remain green through the coldest part of the year when most land plants die back -- to cheerfully remind us that spring will be returning soon.

The Pacific Northwest’s temperate climate with wet winters and dry summers make it prime habitat for evergreen conifers (needle-leafed trees). So much so that Oregon is the number one grower of “Christmas trees” in the world, harvesting about 4.7 million trees in 2017 -- garnering $120.6 million in sales, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association (PNCTA).

Also according to the PNCTA, just over half of Christmas trees harvested in 2017 in the Pacific Northwest were noble firs (54%); Oregon’s official state tree, Douglas-firs, made up about a third (32%) of Christmas trees harvested in our region that year. Grand fir and Nordmann fir made up the bulk of the remaining Pacific Northwest’s 2017 Christmas tree harvest. (This year we happened to bring a grand fir into our Coos Bay home.)

Likely the most common tree in Oregon, Douglas-fir’s name,Pseudotsuga menziesii, gives a clue to its place in tree taxonomy: Douglas-firs are not true firs, but “false hemlocks” (Pseudo + tsuga). The species name (menziesii) honors Archibald Menzies, the Scottish physician and naturalist who first described this tree; the common name honors David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who explored the Pacific Northwest in the early 1880s. (The hyphen in the common name indicates this tree is not a true fir.)

Douglas-fir needles are rather soft and are arranged pretty much all the way around the twig, like the bristles on a bottle brush -- though that “bottle brush” may be flattened a little top-to-bottom when growing in shade.

Douglas-fir cones are easy to spot: three-pronged papery bracts stick out from between the cone scales, looking much like tiny mice trying to force their way into the cone. (Sorry, conifers small enough to fit in your house are rarely mature enough to have cones.)

In our state, Douglas-fir grows naturally at all elevations west of the highest Cascades, as well as the higher, wetter areas of eastern Oregon.

Perhaps the noble fir (Abies procera) is called “noble” because it seems so upright and prim: noble fir needles, twigs, and branches tend to be a bit stiffer and tidier-looking than those of Douglas-fir.

Noble fir needles start all around the twig, but especially in sunny conditions, the needles bend to turn up, pointing skyward. Each needle has a characteristic tiny groove that runs the length of the top surface.

Noble fir is native to higher elevations of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, and in the very highest peaks of the Coast Range in northern Oregon and southern Washington. (Mary’s Peak, west of Corvallis, for example, has lovely noble firs at the top.)

One of the tallest firs, grand fir (Abies grandis) grows naturally in moist environments in all but the highest elevations in the Pacific Northwest. Most of the needles on the tops and bottoms of the grand fir’s twigs come out at an angle to the side, making the branches appear generally flat; the needles are blunt with a tiny notch at the end.

As in most true firs, noble fir and grand fir cones stand upright on the branches. True fir cones don’t fall from the tree like the cones of Douglas-fir (and pine, spruce, and hemlock) do, but come apart one scale at a time to free the seeds, leaving an empty spike on the branch.

Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) is native to far eastern Europe and Armenia. A few other conifers -- including a couple of spruces and pines—account for a small percentage of the harvest.

While the classic conical shape of Christmas trees is natural, commercial growers nearly always prune the young trees to enhance the shape and make the tree denser: commercial Christmas tree growing is a labor-intensive crop.

Other challenges await Christmas tree growers (and the trees themselves): our increasingly warmer, longer dry summers are particularly stressful to conifers such as Douglas-firs, noble firs, and grand firs.

We aren’t the only ones who love our trees. Pacific Northwest Christmas trees are shipped throughout the US and around the world—only about eight percent stay in their home region for the holidays. (PNCTA)  While nearly half of the region’s exported Christmas trees go to California, our trees also go to celebrate the winter in China and Japan, Philippines and Guam, Puerto Rico and more -- with Mexico being the top international importer.

Using conifers to decorate and celebrate is a popular and enduring tradition.

Douglas-fir, noble fir, grand fir, or other conifer, which did you invite into your home for the winter holidays?

For information on how to arrange a gift certificate of an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027, mgiles@wavecrestdiscoveries.com, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries. Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome. www.wavecrestdiscoveries.com

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