Holiday Central

Get the best Christmas tree money can buy. Here's why

When it comes to buying a long-lasting, low-maintenance holiday tree, go with the fir and avoid the spruce.

That's the recommendation from Christmas tree experts, including the self-proclaimed "Chuck Norris of Forestry" Les Werner, a forestry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"Firs will be the longest-lasting trees, and they're the ones with the fragrance you associate with Christmas," he said.

A resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side purchases a Christmas tree from a street vendor.
Angelo Merendino | Corbis | Getty Images

Oscar Sloterbeck, senior managing director at investment banking firm Evercore and author of the company's annual Christmas tree sales survey, agrees. "I'm a fan of the Douglas fir," he said. "It holds the needles and color longer."

But don't take their word for it. Science is on the side of the fir.

Considering Americans spent an average of $50 on a live tree during the 2015 holiday season, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, you'll want to make sure yours will last.

The hardiest trees

Werner performed a study six years ago in order to understand the relationship between watering a Christmas tree and its ability to retain needles. He and his students set up about 60 trees in a mall and watered half of them.

The trees were harvested just prior to the start of the experiment, and the researchers made a second cut across the base of the tree to remove any hardened resin.

There were four species represented: Fraser fir, balsam fir, Scotch pine and white spruce.

Over the course of four weeks, the researchers measured the extent to which the trees absorbed and lost water, as well as their needle retention after being dropped from a height of 3 feet.

"The trees that were watered lost moisture at a lower rate than those that weren't," said Werner. "Initially, we found there was a rapid uptake of water, and after five or six days, a precipitous drop."

Based on Werner's analysis, the Fraser and balsam firs lost very few needles, even those trees that hadn't been watered.

The Scotch pine was an "intermediate" performer, Werner said.

Spruces were the worst. "They looked like Charlie Brown's tree," Werner said, recalling the sad, nearly bare conifer from the holiday classic. "We didn't have to perform the 'drop' test with the spruce; it already shed all of its needles."

Shop early

Close to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold every year in the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The Scotch pine is the top-selling and most-planted holiday tree, according to the association.

Sloterbeck will begin polling tree farmers and sellers after Thanksgiving.

In recent years, more shoppers have been buying their trees earlier in the season, starting right after Black Friday, he said.

"It would suggest that people are decorating earlier and taking advantage of sales for retail goods and shopping earlier," Sloterbeck said. "That's a function of getting to pick the tree you want and better choice in quality."

Best practices

Keep the following in mind when you're choosing and caring for your tree, according to Werner and Sloterbeck:

  • Buy the freshest tree you can find: Ask your vendor for details on when the tree was cut. Bear in mind that your conifer may have traveled a long way from the farm, so it has likely been losing moisture for some time. Better yet, cut your own tree. Sloterbeck suggests trimming the branches at the bottom of the trunk, too.

  • Replenish your tree's water every day: Plain tap water is fine, and the temperature doesn't matter. Be sure to make a second cut at the base of the tree to eliminate any hardened resin that could block the absorption of water.

  • Location matters: Think about where you want to display the tree. Furnaces and fireplaces dry out the air and speed up moisture loss.

  • Use a heavy tree stand: The best ones have three or four heavy-gauge screws that will anchor the tree.