When it comes to decorating the home for Christmas, most people focus on the tree. And for those of us who put up a live one every year, picking what kind to bring home is part of the fun.


Some retailers are recommending firs this year, as they hold their needles well and retain their aroma.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Norfolk pine

With a few ornaments, you can turn a Norfolk pine into an instant Christmas tree.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fir Close-Up

Spruce trees have stiff needles, but their strong branches can support heavy decorations.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Eastern red cedar

The Eastern red cedar makes an excellent outdoor Christmas tree.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Almost any tree and shrub can be decorated with yuletide regalia, so your choice is almost endless. In recent years, containerized rosemary plants have been big sellers in garden centers. Strung with lights and decorations, they can look rather festive, and they take up little space.

You may prefer a larger tree, and there are obviously plenty to choose from. While some old standards – firs, spruces and Scotch pines – are in good supply, you might consider a cut-your-own at a nearby Christmas tree farm or other locally grown species.

In the Far West, merchants sell Western red cedars. In the Southwest, it’s common to see Afghan pines. And in the South, Virginia pines tend to be the tree of choice.

But when you come right down to it, which tree you pick to help fill your home with holiday cheer is entirely up to you. Here’s a look at many of the Christmas tree species you’ll find out there, so you can help decide which to bring home this year.

Traditional Trees

The Firs. As a group, firs might be the best of all Christmas trees – and often the most expensive. They don’t shed needles when they dry out in the house, and they have that dark green foliage color and great scent that most of us associate with the season. Among the firs you may find in the garden center are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), white fir (Abies concolor) and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). Douglas firs have a lovely blue-green color; balsam firs are dark green, shiny and soft; white firs come in different colors – from sky blue to dark green, depending on the cultivar; and Fraser firs are medium to dark green and shiny.

The Pines. Generally, pines are the least expensive of the traditional Christmas tree options and can be found across the US. Scotch (or Scott’s) pine (Pinus sylvestris) is our most common Christmas tree. It has stiff branches and dark green needles that stay on the tree for about four weeks – even in the dry environment of a house or apartment. Like the firs, Scotch pine keeps its fresh aroma. Other Christmas tree pines include Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), Austrian pine (Pinus nigra), Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica) and Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). For holiday-goers with allergy-sensitive noses, white pine (Pinus strobus) might be a good selection – the plant has little or no fragrance.

The Spruces. Spruces have a tight, symmetrical shape and range in color from dark green to powdery blue – even within a species. They have strong branches and can support heavy decorations. That said, they have stiff needles and may be difficult to decorate, especially for young children. They also tend to drop their needles in a warm room. Blue spruce (Picea pungens) is likely the best of the species for needle retention and has the classic conical shape. Others sold as Christmas trees include Norway spruce (Picea abies), which has a dark green color and nice graceful branches, and white spruce (Picea glauca), which is bright to medium green with short needles.

Less-Traditional Trees

Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), native to the Himalayas, has a naturally conical shape and short, bluish-green needles.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is dark green and has a good scent. It loses its greenery under dry conditions, but if you’ve got one growing in your landscape, it makes a great outdoor Christmas tree.

Western red cedar or giant arborvitae (Thuja plicata) has fernlike branches and a soft appearance. Its stems are cinnamon-red on young trees.

Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), though generally considered to be a houseplant, may actually grow to more than 90 feet tall in USDA hardiness zones 9-15. Its leaves are soft and compact, and its many cultivars range in color from pale yellow to deep green.

Leland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii) is commonly used as a landscape hedge, but in juvenile form it has an attractive, deep green color and flattened branchlets.

Traditional or not, retailers now offer many of these species in containers or balled-and-burlapped. These “living Christmas trees” can be a good buy for homeowners: They can be kept moist more easily than cut trees, and they can be planted in the landscape after the holidays end. Just make sure the Christmas tree you plant in your yard is adapted to your area – and doesn’t grow to overwhelm your landscape. (That’s one Christmas gift you can live without!)