Pikes/Pines | A Capitol Hill Christmas tree story

I’m not going to pretend that every person who reads Pikes/Pines participates in the tradition of putting up a tree for the holidays. I generally see Christmas as wasteful, contributing to the consumer nightmare that is the contemporary United States. I’m also a solidly secular individual. However, it’s a time of year when I get to see distant friends and family, eat wonderful food, and I rather like getting thoughtful presents. The trees themselves are also a gift, of sorts, bringing a piece of forest life into Capitol Hill homes and neighborhood hangouts.

When I was in high school, I worked at a Christmas tree lot in Seattle. All our trees came from a family farm near Shelton, Washington and I got to know the different species intimately. We had Douglas fir, noble, and grand firs, the odd blue spruce, and a few pines.

According to a 2012 census by the USDA, Oregon and North Carolina produce 79% of the Christmas trees in the United States. Lewis and Mason Counties in Washington are our state’s largest producers, but are far behind counties like Ashe County, North Carolina and Clackamas County, Oregon. Only a small portion of real trees in the country are from u-cut operations, where you show up and cut your tree, or from non-agricultural sources, individually harvested on National Forest Service land. Most are grown as monocrops and shipped around the country. Fraser firs are the most-sold US tree, noble and Douglas firs second and third.

There’s a reason these three species are common in US living rooms: they grow fast. Most Christmas trees take 8 to 10 years of fertilizing and shaping to reach saleable size. This is a big industry, over $1 billion is spent on real Christmas trees in the US annually. There’s significant research into “perfecting” trees, studying hardiness, needle retention, and reducing cone growth (which saps overall growth and is considered unsightly by growers). I find this all slightly odd, but I do appreciate that Douglas and noble firs are native to Washington.

I grew up with noble firs, Abies procera, in my home. They are desirable as Christmas trees from a consumer perspective because they keep a long time and can hold heavy ornaments. Noble firs are not widespread, growing in the Central and Southern Cascades, the coastal ranges of Southwestern Washington and Oregon, and in the Siskiyous of Northern California. They are a subalpine tree; the first time I recognized one growing outside a farm was snowboarding on Mount Hood.

Unfettered, noble firs grow a couple hundred feet tall, the largest true fir in North America. Not only do they grow tall, but they have a narrow, dome shaped canopy. Most of us might not recognize a mature noble based on our Christmas tree experience. Part of what makes them especially pretty are the two whitish lines of stomata, actually microscopic pores for “breathing,” on both sides on the needle, giving them a bluish green color.

When young, Douglas firs, Pseudotsuga menziesii, are the image of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. They’re droopy limbed, not for heavy ornaments, but they smell wonderful and shear up nicely. From an agricultural perspective though, Christmas trees are very much a secondary use. Their high productivity and fast growth rate make them ideal for lumber.

We call them firs, but from a taxonomic perspective, they aren’t actually that closely related to the “true firs.” The easiest way to tell these conifers apart is by their cones. True fir cones grow upright and are large, disintegrating on the tree. Smaller Douglas fir cones hang down and drop to the ground, typically intact.

Douglas firs are the second tallest tree species in North America, behind coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens. The largest coastal specimen is 327 feet tall. They are long lived, mature specimens can reach 1,000 years old. What I appreciate most about Douglas firs is their ubiquity and their adaptability to a wide variety of habitats across Washington state. From coastal giants to stunted dryside specimens, they are emblematic of our region.

I enjoy the idea of using Christmas as an opportunity to buy a live tree to eventually plant instead of killing one to put in a bucket for a handful of weeks. Yet, overall, I would rather that we have real, cut trees, instead of fake ones. Christmas trees are a small part of our annual impact. It seems silly to fret over them, unless you live in Hawaii and buy an Oregon noble fir (that’s a real thing by the way). Yes, everything counts and Christmas trees can spread exotic pest insects, and are monocropped wastelands of biodiversity.

Fake trees are made from plastic and metal. While you get to use them year after year, they eventually end up in a dump. A real tree usually gets chipped and builds up nutrients in the soil. It’s easy for me to suggest people find alternatives when I live where Christmas trees are viably grown. But I really do think people could start fun traditions around native trees. Think how awesome it would be if people got to know a local plant in the process of celebrating? These might not be a conifer, but when culturally domineering traditions like Christmas spread globally, it seems like a good way to flip the system!


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6 thoughts on “Pikes/Pines | A Capitol Hill Christmas tree story

  1. Solidly secular person here who still loves a ‘Christmas’ tree… while we may associate it today with a Christian holiday, it’s sooooo much not… Firs, mistletoe, garland, greenery in the house at solstice.. very pagan, adopted and adapted to other religions, but truly not of them…. Living here in the dark, damp PNW makes me understand and appreciate the sentiment all the more. To have something green and living that smell good and brings a in a little light to the darkest time of the year, I get that and don’t have to believe in any gods to still enjoy a little celebration of the return of the light :).

  2. Gather round your fern if you like, but I’ll take a Christmas tree. No regrets, no second thoughts, no secular vs. religious guilt. Not everything has to be angst ridden and complicated folks.

  3. I think there are a lot of us who are on the same page here. Nope, not religious at all. Still like to put up a tree just for the pretty lights. Don’t really GAF whether that’s inconsistent or whatever. Pretty lights don’t need a reason.

  4. Thank you to the writer for the background info on the trees! I’d like to add one to the mix: Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), AKA “indoor (insert preferred holiday name) tree”. It’s a tropical houseplant that while not an actual pine, fits the bill. For those who don’t have yard space for planting outside, this one can be kept alive indoors.

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