How Christmas Trees Work

By: Katherine Neer  | 
Christmas trees, Park Plaza Hotel
Christmas trees wrapped in lights stand against the Park Plaza Hotel in Grand Army Plaza on Dec. 6, 2020 in New York City. John Lamparski/Getty Images

When you think of Christmas, you probably think of a Christmas tree. In fact, the Christmas tree is one of the most recognizable images of the season. Almost everywhere you go, it's the focal point of people's holiday decoration. You adorn your tree with ornaments. You pile your gifts under it. And you gather around your tree to sing Christmas carols and drink eggnog.

­The growing and selling of fresh Christmas trees is big business. About 26 million real trees were purchased in 2019, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. There are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas Trees in the U.S., and over 100,000 people are employed full or part-time in the industry, it reported.


But how do you choose a pretty tree, and how do you keep it from drying out and turning into a fire hazard during the holidays? In this article, you will find out everything from how and where the trees are grown to how to select and care for your tree through the holiday season.

Growing the Perfect Tree

Fraser firs grown at this tree farm in North Carolina get regular trims throughout their 12-year growth cycle.
Ted Richardson/Getty Images

­­Most people agree that the Christmas tree is a German tradition, started as early as A.D.700 In the 1800s, the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany; it then spread to England and then to America through German immigrants, who settled primarily in Pennsylvania. Although you might think that all people in the 1800s went out to their back yard or to the closest patch of forest to chop down their holiday tree, Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since the mid 1800s.

Today, about 30 million Christmas trees are produced each year. The majority of these trees, somewhere between 95 and 98 percent, come directly from Christmas tree farms or plantations. According to the University of Illinois Extension, more than 1 million acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees. In North America alone, there are more than 15,000 Christmas tree growers.


Although Christmas trees are grown in 49 states (Alaska is the only exception), the top seven states for Christmas tree production are:

  • California
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin
  • Washington

Oregon is the leading producer and Michigan offers the greatest number of varieties grown by any state, boasting 13 different types of Christmas trees.

Usually, about 2,000 trees are planted per acre in the United States, and more in the United Kingdom. On average, American growers plant trees 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) apart, while growers in the United Kingdom plant their trees between 3 and 4 feet (0.9 and 1.2 meters) apart. Out of 2,000 trees, anywhere from 750 to 1,500 can be expected to survive, depending on the climate and weather conditions they must endure. It can take from seven to 12 years of field growth for the average 6- or 7-foot tree to be ready to harvest.

During those years in the field, there are several things that must be done to ensure a hearty, attractive tree. Once seedlings are planted, growers have to consider proper fertilization, weed and pest control and a shearing schedule. Of these, the most important, especially to the consumer, is the shearing.

When it comes to Christmas trees, most people have a favorite shape. Some of us like tall, narrow trees. Others have an affinity for something more squat and plump. Both the shape of the tree and density of the needles depend on shearing. To control both the width and height of a tree, growers cut off, or shear, the tip of the leading shoot of the tree. They also cut the ends of the lateral branches, to encourage the conical shape.

Not only does this help achieve the desired taper, but it also eventually increases the number of branches and overall density of the tree's foliage.

In the next section, we'll look at the process of harvesting Christmas trees.

Harvesting Christmas Trees

Workers collect Normand fir trees
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Actual harvest times vary according to species and climate, but most plantations begin cutting trees during the first few weeks of November. Usually, trees that will be shipped outside the originating country are harvested first. Then, those set for domestic sale will be cut from mid-November to mid-December.

The harvesting includes several steps:


  • Grading
  • Cutting
  • Hauling
  • Baling

Some pretty cool equipment is used to do all of this. Several plantations in the Pacific Northwest use helicopters to move bundles of trees from the field to truck beds. Refrigerated trucks are used to transport trees, and balers (like the one pictured above) are used during harvest to bundle the trees for shipping. Sometimes you will see a baler at retail lots, where they use them to rebundle your tree before loading it onto the top of your car.

In the next section, we'll discuss the best ways to go about selecting a Christmas tree.

Choosing the Right Tree for You

A tiny skier among several Colorado Blue Spruce trees. Could he be looking for the perfect Christmas tree?
Marc Muench/Getty Images

­There are several ways for you to get a fresh Christmas tree:

  • Go to a r­etail lot in your area and select one that has been cut already.
  • Order a tree online, over the phone or by mail.
  • Go to a cut-your-own farm and select one. There are more than 12,000 cut-your-own farms in the United States. At a cut-your-own farm, you usually will have the option of letting someone who works on the farm do the actual chopping.
  • Go into your own woods (or some place where you have permission) and cut down a tree yourself. Although this does seem like a nice idea, it really isn't a great choice. It isn't good for the environment, and you could be bringing unwanted pests into your home.

­You might ask yourself a couple of questions before you decide on a tree. Do you have lots of heavy ornaments? A fir tree with its sturdy branches will hold up those treasured decorations. Or do you simply string plain white Christmas lights around your tree with bows and popcorn? A pine tree would be a good choice for lighter decorations like these.


Decide where you want to place the tree before you buy it. That way, you'll know how big a tree you can get. It is good to allow about 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) to remain between your tree and the ceiling. If you forget to take your measuring tape to the farm or tree lot, ask an attendant for help. You don't want to bring home a tree that doesn't fit. If you are placing your tree in a corner or against the wall, keep in mind that the more perfect the tree, the higher the price. So if you can have a bad side, or two, you will have more money left over for the tinsel and lights.

Here are some things you might want to consider when you look for a tree:

  • That perfect shape that you have in your head
  • The density of the branches on the trunk
  • The smell of the fresh needles and bark
  • The texture of the branches
  • The durability of the tree, especially if you want to leave it up for a long time

Among the best-selling Christmas trees are the Douglas, Fraser, Noble and Balsam firs, and the Scotch, Virginia and white pine trees. You might be among the growing number of people who choose a living tree. One of the most popular trees for this is the Colorado blue spruce.

On the next page, we'll look at different types of Christmas trees.

Christmas Trees at a Glance

The branches of a Colorado Blue Spruce tree.
Jack Flash/Getty Images

Where you live can dictate, to some extent, what type of tree you will select. For example, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, it's highly likely that you will have a Noble or Douglas fir. If you live in a southeastern state, let's say North Carolina, you will probably choose a Fraser fir, or possibly a white pine. However, with mail-order and online shopping growing in popularity among the Christmas tree industry, you aren't limited to what grows in your area.

Colorado Blue Spruce

Used as an ornamental landscape tree, the Colorado Blue Spruce makes an excellent living Christmas tree. Blue-gray to silvery-gray in color, this tree grows in a natural conical shape. Although this tree is primarily grown in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, you can probably locate one at a local retail lot or nursery.


Arizona Cypress

This tree has a steeple shape and is pale-green to gray-green in color. This is an aromatic tree that can most often be purchased at cut-your-own Christmas tree farms along the east coast and in the south and southwest regions of the United States.

Balsam Fir

Balsam's are pyramid shaped and dark-green in color with long-lasting needles. This fragrant tree is popular in Canada and throughout the northern United States.

Douglas Fir

Pyramid shaped and dark-green or blue-green in color, this tree has a subtle sweet fragrance. One of the most popular Christmas trees in the United States. Primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest, these trees are shipped throughout the United States and internationally to some Asian markets.

Fraser Fir

A Fraser fir tree.

Pyramid shaped, the strong, upward-turned branches are densely covered with two-toned needles. The top side of the needle is dark-green to dark blue-green in color and the bottom side has a silvery appearance. Excellent needle retention, a pleasant aroma, and it's color make this one of the most popular Christmas tree species. Heavy ornaments and lights are easily held by this strong tree. The majority of Fraser Firs are produced in North Carolina and are shipped throughout the United States and internationally. The branches are also used to make wreaths, swags and Christmas roping.

Noble Fir

This tree is also pyramid shaped, with blue-green needles that give it a silvery appearance. The sturdy branches and long-lasting freshness make this a great Christmas tree. Like the Fraser fir, the greenery from this tree can be used to make wreaths, swags and garland.

Eastern Redcedar

Natural cone shaped, this tree can range in color from shiny dark-green to blue-green and even purple and are most usually available at cut-your-own Christmas tree farms or plantations. This tree can dry out quickly, so be sure to get the stump in water as soon as possible. The wood from this tree has been used in cedar chests and closets.

Leyland Cypress

This tree has an Impressive cone shape with colors that range from dark-green to gray. Although you will most often see this as an ornamental landscape plant throughout England and the southeastern United States, it has recently become popular as a Christmas tree in the southeastern United States. This is not a fragrant tree, so for those of you who don't like the "Christmas tree smell," this would be a good choice.

Virginia Pine

This pine tree is conical shaped. The soft, short needles are supported by stout woody branches, making this a good tree for ornaments. Normally dark-green in color, the needles can turn a yellowish-green in late fall, making it necessary to use a tree colorant or pigment to restore the natural color. Originally, this was the staple of the Christmas tree industry throughout the southeastern United States. This tree is available at retail lots and cut-your-own farms.

Scotch Pine

Nice conical shape. Color ranges from bright to dark green and sometimes blue-green. Sturdy branches, excellent needle retention, and lasting freshness make this a great Christmas tree. Don't worry about hanging heavy ornaments and lights on this tree.

Norway Spruce

This spruce is conical shaped. Dark green in color. This tree is not known for good needle retention, so make sure you get a fresh cut and keep it watered.

Eastern White Pine

An impressive cone shape, the soft needles on this tree are blue-green to silvery-green in color. Heavy ornaments do not work well on this tree. Sometimes the needles can turn yellow, so a tree colorant or pigment is used by the growers to restore trees to their natural color. This tree has very little fragrance and is reported to be less of an allergen than some of the more fragrant trees.

In the next section, we'll talk about looking for freshness in your Christmas tree.

Christmas Tree Freshness

A worker rests after collecting Nordman fir trees wrapped in netting on a trailer on Nov. 8, 2007 near Reading, England.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

­When selecting your tree, there are a few things that you can do to gauge the fr­eshness. First, be aware of your surroundings. If you are on a retail lot, look around you and see what kind of care they are giving to the trees.

  • Are the trees displayed in stands that hold water?
  • Are trees that are still baled being protected from the wind and sun?
  • Do the lot attendants put a fresh cut on the tree?
  • Are they tying the tree down correctly? (If they are tying the tree to the top of your automobile, be sure that the butt of the tree is at the front end of your car.)

As you walk through the lot, you can stop to gently run your hand down a branch or two. Very few needles should come off the tree if it is fresh. Also, for fir trees, the needles should break crisply when bent. If they are pliable and do not snap with pressure, then the tree might not be taking up water. If you can, ask the lot attendant to shake the tree on its stump. It is normal for brown needles from the interior of the tree to fall. However, if you see an excess of green needles falling, pick another tree.


Taking Care of Your Tree

A white pine tree.

­­­Once you get your tree home, you will need to do a few things to keep it fresh. With proper care, the average fresh Christmas tree should last at least five to six weeks. In fact, last year, one of the staff here at HowStuffWorks wanted to see just how long she could keep her tree up. She finally had to take it down as a birthday present to her husband -- on February 8! While we don't recommend this, it's neat to know that a tree can last that long.

The main thing your tree needs is water. You've probably heard of several home remedies that suggest you add something to the water, such as aspirin, 7UP or Sprite or even bleach! You don't need to do that. Plain water will do just fine.


Once you bring your tree home, if you are not going to set it up immediately, you should put it in a bucket of water in a well-shaded area out of the wind. Most retail locations will put a fresh cut on the tree -- trimming about one-fourth to one-half of an inch (0.64 to 1.25 cm) from the base. It can take as little as four to six hours for the base of the tree to sap over. When this happens, a seal is formed and the tree will no longer take water. If this does happen, you can make another fresh cut and place it in water immediately.

A Christmas tree stand

You can trim your tree even after you have put it in a stand. You can cut back some of the bark along the base, exposing the pinkish layer underneath, or you can drill a few shallow holes along the base. This works because it is not the center of the trunk, which absorbs the majority of water, but rather the outermost rings just below the bark.

One of the easiest ways to make sure your tree is getting enough water is to select the best tree stand. The average Christmas tree can use as much as 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of water a day, and you should check the water level daily. The general rule of thumb, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, is that one quart (0.95 liters) of water is required for each inch (2.54 cm) of the trunk's diameter. So, if you have a tree that is about 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall with a trunk that measures about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, you will need to have a stand that holds at least 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of water.

When shopping for stands, be sure to find out how much water the stand holds when a tree is placed in it. Many simply tell you how much water the stand holds without taking into account the displacement that occurs once the tree is in the stand. The stands shown below are examples of really great stands.

In addition to keeping your tree watered, you should not place your tree near anything that could be a possible heat source. Avoid fireplaces, furnaces and air vents.

It's really amazing that something that starts out the height of a quarter turns into a big, beautiful centerpiece for the holiday season. Please remember that when the season is over, you should remove your tree before it dries out. Several communities recycle trees by chipping them -- check with someone in your area about this service.

In the next section, we'll look at some alternative choices to organic Christmas trees.

Christmas Tree Trends

Some people like their Christmas trees to look as fake as possible.
ML Harris/Getty Images

­Not everyone enjoys a fragrant, fresh, natural Christmas tree. Many folks choose to go with something man-made. Although they had been around in the late 1800's elsewhere, artificial trees started to show up in the United States in the early 1900s. Initially, these trees were made to resemble their natural counterparts. Over the years, however there have been many new additions to the artificial arena -- some of them celebrating the unconventional. For example, in the 1950's, one popular trend in artificial trees was to go with very unnatural colors -- like pink, aqua or silver.

­These trees looked more like tinsel than foliage because they were made using aluminum-coated paper. Much like everything else in society, these funky, shiny trees have made a comeback over the past few years with the rest of the retro-revival. Current trees use a different treatment to achieve the metallic look, however -- the old versions were a fire hazard.


Artificial Christmas Trees

Some artificial Christmas trees are made to look as authentic as possible.
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

­Today, synthetic-focused shoppers can find everything from snow-covered limbs to pre-lit branches. For those pressed for time, you can even get trees that are fully decorated. Among the pre-lit variety, there are two stand-outs. Fiber-optic trees come in two basic varieties -- the entire tree is made of fiber optics and looks like a tree shaped of wispy strands of light. The other kinds is a standard artificial tree that resembles a natural variety, but the limbs are dotted with multi-colored fiber-optic lights -- saves the mess of untangling the Christmas tree lights. We've also seen some models that come complete with an MP3 player and speakers so the sounds of the holiday can waft from your brightly-lit tree.

The other pre-lit model that seems to be making a huge impression is by appearance made to look like a natural tree that has already been graced with a tasteful amount of carefully placed white lights. This tree's break from convention doesn't come by way of style so much as placement. They're upside-down. The inverted imitators can be suspended from the ceiling or affixed to a wall. Many come with weighted stands to provide extra stability. For houses limited on floor-space, or in need of extra room for a bountiful supply of gifts -- this could be just the thing!


For more Christmas-related articles, visit the Lots More Information page.

Originally Published: Dec 5, 2000