Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Holidays 2018 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Christmas tree buyers, like evergreens, come in many varieties. There’s the Goldilocks customer who carefully scopes an entire inventory before making a claim, and the hurried grab-and-go elf.
But with more and more options on the lot and in the field, Christmas tree connoisseurs can find the “just right” tree — and it may be a variety they’ve never heard of before.
Northerners have the home field advantage when it comes to tree selection. According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the state produces nine major Christmas tree species, more than any other state, and ranks third in the country in production.
But area growers and sellers — Wexford, Missaukee and Manistee counties take the Michigan production lead, though the Grand Traverse region makes its mark — also experiment with novelty or “exotic” Christmas trees, like the Korean and Nordmann firs, in an effort to broaden tree horizons for consumers and please their appetite for a new look. That means testing tree species’ adoption to northern soils and climate in their mission to produce the picture-perfect and affordable Christmas tree.
Robinson Family Christmas Tree Farm in Traverse City offers a few Korean firs this year for the first time. The species native to Korea features green needles with a silvery underside which creates a unique look when lights are strung on branch undersides. The variety is labor-intensive, grown by only a few producers, and demands a higher price than other varieties.
“They will probably sell fast, so come early,” said grower Darrel Robinson.
The Herkner Road farm offers fresh pre-cut trees, plus 10 acres of “U-choose-we-cut” trees for those who enjoy a field hunt. Its spectrum of favorites includes Scotch pine, Black Hills spruce, balsam, concolor and Fraser firs.
“The Fraser fir is the most popular variety,” said grower Darrel Robinson. “It’s almost the perfect tree. Frasers hold their needles — which are soft and bluish green.”
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the tree native to the Appalachian Mountains has a pleasant scent and pyramid shape.
Anyone with their heart set on a Fraser fir will want to make their purchase early in the season because of limited availability. Robinson said due to the nation’s 2008 economic downturn, many growers held back on plantings. The effect is now hitting the marketplace and creating a Fraser fir shortage.
Grower/wholesaler Brian Getty of Getty Tree Farm in Missaukee County will harvest 18,000 trees this season. Getty said Black Hills spruce is taking the place of Frasers with many buyers. As the name implies, the variety is native to South Dakota’s Black Hills region. It features a compact, pyramidal form and short, gray-green needles, according to Michigan State University Extension experts. It’s also a preferred selection for the table-top.
Groleau’s Farm Market on Hammond Road in Traverse City sells Fraser, concolor, Douglas and balsam firs. If lucky, shoppers may find a few Korean firs on the lot.
“It’s hit and miss,” said owner Lynn Groleau of the exotic’s availability.
Manton-based Dutchman Tree Farms is one of Groleau’s tree suppliers. Dutchman will harvest 900,000 trees this season, but only 500 Korean firs and 500 Nordmann firs. A European native, Nordmann firs with their layered branches are Europe’s best seller. The grower’s exotic Christmas trees are sold only to select wholesale customers.
Dutchman’s Manton choose-and-cut lot is a wonderland of favorite varieties, including the newer up-and-comer, concolor fir. Concolor attracts buyers with its long blue needles and citrus scent.
Dutchman sales manager Justin Bartlett noted that in light of the Fraser shortage, the Scotch pine is making a comeback. The timeless favorite is known for its strong branches and medium-length needles which provide excellent retention. It offers the budget-conscious buyer an attractive choice.
“Some choices are determined by the types of ornaments you have. If you have heavy ornaments you want good branch structure,” said Jill O’Donnell, Christmas tree specialist for Michigan State University Extension.
Robinson said Scotch pine, Douglas fir and Black Hills spruce are often painted for color enhancement because their needles yellow in the fall. These varieties also tend to be the most economical buy.
If classic evergreen fragrance is the main criteria, nothing beats Balsam fir. It’s a scent that takes people back to their childhoods and is an integral part of Christmas tree magic, Robinson said.
But fragrance is only a starter for the real tree holiday tradition which remains alive and well.
A Christmas tree hunt defined by snowflakes melting on cheeks, lanes of trees waiting for adoption, cocoa and visits with Santa all offer families opportunity to build joyful bonds — the spirit of which transforms any tree into a perfect choice.