Plants - Trees and Shrubs

10 evergreen Christmas tree options

Karen York
Photography by
Laura Arsiè (inset photos)

From fir to pine to spruce, choose the perfect fragrant tree that will host your decorations.

The stuff of ancient Norse ceremonies, candlelit Victorian parlours and modern childhood memories, the Christmas tree truly embodies the spirit—and scent—of the season. Yes, artificial pretenders have made inroads, but natural trees are just that—natural. Grown right here, they delight us with their evergreen gifts, then return obligingly to the earth. There’s a plethora of Christmas trees available at tree farms, nurseries and retail outlets. Whether you buy a pre-cut one or find your inner Paul Bunyan and cut your own, here’s a guide to help you pick the perfect tree.

Choosing your tree
Top-quality and top-priced trees are straight, dense and look good all the way around, i.e., have four good “faces,” the result of regular shearing. Know how tall and wide a tree you can accommodate (including the topper), and take your tape measure.

Freshness is key to a long-lasting tree. Check by grasping a branch and pulling it toward you; only a few needles should come off. Or bend a needle tip toward the stem; it should bend, not snap. Or bang the tree on the ground a couple of times; it should lose only a few needles.

Buy your tree two weeks before Christmas for the best selection. Transport it in a tree bag and keep it outdoors out of wind and rain until ready to decorate.

Setting up your tree
Cut one to two centimetres off the bottom of the trunk and get the tree into the stand within four hours or the cut will seal, preventing water uptake.

Keep the tree bag spread out under the stand for easy removal after Christmas.

Make sure your tree stand holds at least four litres of water. Use warm water for the first fill.

Position the tree away from heat sources and direct sunlight.

Caring for your tree
Top up the reservoir twice daily; never let it go empty. A tree can draw up several litres of water a day, and a dry tree is a goner very quickly.

Forget about adding aspirin, bleach or sugar. Plain water is best. Keep the room as cool as you comfortably can.

Dispatching your tree
Once the needles start to drop after the holidays, pull up the tree bag and haul the tree outside. Many municipalities will pick up trees for recycling. Or you can use the branches as a dry mulch to protect plants outdoors.

10 evergreen Christmas tree options

* Needle retention score is on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the worst.


1 Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris)

Native to the British Isles (though little remains of the pine forests that once cloaked Scotland), the Scots pine was introduced to Canada by early settlers. Fast-growing and adaptable, it is the most  common Christmas tree, with a pleasing conical shape and long-lasting fragrance. The stiff branches will support heavy ornaments— and lots of them thanks to its fairly open branching pattern. Scots pine keeps well after being cut, holding its needles for four weeks, even if you’re not diligent about watering. The bluish-green needles are stiff, twisted, with sharp tips, 4.5 to nine centimetres long. Widely available.

Needle retention score: 5


2 Austrian pine (Pinus nigra)
With its bold texture and heavy thick branches, the Austrian pine demands space where it can make its shaggy presence felt. A rapid grower, it is more difficult to shear into the desired shape than other species. Its long, dark green needles are a distinctive feature. Tufted on the branch tips, they’re eight to 15 centimetres long and quite sharp, which can make decorating it a challenge. But the dense branches hold plenty of lights and ornaments. Austrian pine lasts well and has a moderate fragrance to boot. Usually found at Christmas tree farms.

Needle retention score: 5


3 Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
Ontario’s provincial tree and a key building block in Canada’s history, the eastern white pine makes a tall, elegant Christmas tree, with slender, pliant branches that are best suited to smaller, lighter ornaments. Friendly on the fingers, the soft, blue- to silver-green needles are long (eight to 12 centimetres) and held in bundles of five, giving the tree a full, almost fluffy appearance. It also has very little fragrance, which is good news for allergy sufferers. A rapid grower, it can reach 1.2 metres in height in six to eight years in cultivation, which keeps the price reasonable. Widely available.

Needle retention score: 4


4 Colorado spruce (Picea pungens)
With a naturally symmetrical form that requires little shearing during cultivation, this tree has stiff branches that will carry many heavy ornaments. The silvery green needles, attached singly around the branch in bottlebrush fashion, are two to 3.5 centimetres long, thick, rigid, curved upward and very sharp, so gloves might be in order. Beware that the needles will drop quickly if the room is too warm or if the treestand water reservoir is allowed to dry. Slower growing than other species, the Colorado spruce takes longer to reach marketable size and is usually pricier as a result. Available at farms and nurseries.

Needle retention score: 3


5 Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
Named for the resin or balsam found in blisters on the bark, the balsam fir is the top-selling Christmas tree in Canada. It is also one of the most fragrant, with a pleasing woodsy scent. Add to that the classic layered Christmas tree shape, a lovely dark green colour, branches stiff enough for a wide range of ornaments and good needle retention and its appeal is clear. The flexible needles are two to four centimetres long, flat with rounded tips and two white bands on the undersides. Widely available.

Needle retention score: 4


6 White fir (Abies concolor)
Native to North America’s western mountains, the white fir offers horizontal tiers of sturdy branches for all your big ornaments, a lovely evergreen aroma with a touch of citrus and a handsome shape that is slightly narrower than other varieties. The needles are flat, flexible, about four centimetres long (often longer) and curved upward from the stem. Their colour ranges from silvery green to a definite blue-green. This tree has a very dense texture, ideal for weaving in strings of lights with no strings showing. Available at farms and nurseries.

Needle retention score: 4


7 Coloroado blue spruce (Picea pungens [Glauca Group])
For a striking change from traditional green, look to the Colorado blue spruce with its frosty blue needles. An increasingly popular choice as a cut tree and a living tree (one that can be planted outdoors after Christmas), the Colorado blue spruce has the same characteristics as its green sibling, including rigid branches, very prickly needles and a lack of fragrance. Available at farms and nurseries.

Needle retention score: 3


8 Fraser fir (Abies fraseri)

Often designated “the Cadillac of Christmas trees” with a price to match, the Fraser fir has a natural symmetry, woodsy aroma and excellent needle retention. It is a decorator’s dream with pliant, cascading branches that are sturdy enough for heavy ornaments and also perfectly spaced to show them off. Its soft, flattened needles are dark green on top, silvery underneath and about two centimetres long. The tree is named for Scottish botanist John Fraser, who explored the Appalachians in the late 1700s. Sadly, the natural stands he found are dying but the Fraser fir remains alive and well in cultivation and living rooms at Christmastime. Widely available.

Needle retention score: 5


9 Canaan fir (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis)

A fairly new arrival on the Christmas tree scene, the Canaan fir (named for the Canaan Valley in West Virginia) combines the bouquet of a balsam fir with the good looks of the Fraser fir. Growers like it because it tolerates a wider range of conditions and grows more quickly than other firs. Consumers like its easy-to-decorate branches (ideal for medium-weight ornaments) and soft needles. Lustrous green with silvery bands on the underside, the needles are two to three centimetres long and slightly curved. It may be hard to find but look for it at farms and nurseries.

Needle retention score: 5


10 Douglasfir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Discovered on Vancouver Island in 1791, the Douglasfir is one of the longest lived conifers and also makes a long-lasting Christmas tree. It has a sweet resinous scent and a fine texture with many little branchlets for small and mediumweight ornaments. Dark green or blue-green in colour, its needles are soft, shiny and 2.5 to 3.5 centimetres long. They hold on well as long as the tree is regularly watered. Widely available in Western Canada, less common in the East.

Needle retention score: 4


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