Christmas is among my favorite holidays. The religious significance, music, lights, amazing food, fellowship with family, and giving and receiving gifts all lend something special to the season. However, the tradition that arguably gets the most attention is selecting and putting up a Christmas tree! Those that participate in the festivities and put up a Christmas tree have three options: purchasing an artificial tree, purchasing a real tree, or growing your own.
While I like the convenience of a pre-lit tree as much as anyone, artificial trees don’t do a whole lot for the environment or sustainable US agriculture. They are almost exclusively produced overseas and contain non-biodegradable plastics. Not the best. If you select option two and choose to purchase a real tree, you’ll help support a sustainable US agriculture industry! According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are ~25-30 million Christmas trees sold annually in the US and 350 million more currently growing on Christmas tree farms waiting their turn! Purchasing real Christmas trees also ensures that the over 100,000 Christmas tree farm workers remain employed, and the 1/3 million acres US Christmas tree farms comprise will remain non-developed “green spaces”!
But for the green-thumbed Christmas enthusiast that’s willing to put in a little time and effort, there is a third choice – growing your very own Christmas tree right at home! In the Panhandle, there are several species, Florida natives and not, that make wonderful Christmas trees and are easy to grow!
Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – This Florida native is the classic southern evergreen. Growing quickly to the desired heights of 4’-10’, emitting a “Christmas tree smell”, and possessing dark, dense foliage, Red Cedar makes an excellent Christmas tree! Red Cedar performs very well in most soils but does not like wet feet and will not tolerate continuously saturated areas.
Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) – A hybrid of Alaskan Cedar and Monterrey Cypress, Leyland Cypress is recognized as one of the most popular Deep South grown Christmas trees for good reason. Leylands grow exceptionally fast, are a desirable forest green color, and have a naturally conical shape! Though not recommended as long-term landscape trees in Florida due to disease susceptibility, Leylands do very well in short Christmas tree rotations.
Thuja ‘Green Giant’ – ‘Green Giant’ is a cultivar of Thuja and is similar in appearance to Leyland Cypress. Though not quite as deep green in color as Leyland, ‘Green Giant’ also grows rapidly (up to 3’-4’ annually), tolerates many soil conditions, and has no serious insect/disease issues.
Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica) – Arizona Cypress is the Christmas tree for those who would normally choose to be different by purchasing a blue, silver, or white artificial tree! Famous for its striking blue/silver foliage, Arizona Cypress is native to the American Southwest but thrives in the drier sandy soils found in many parts of the Panhandle.
Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) – The quintessential “Cracker Christmas Tree”, Sand Pine is native to the deep sandy ridges of Florida. Normally thought of as a scrubby, low-value tree, when shaped a little, the short-needled Sand Pine makes an excellent Christmas tree! Obviously preferring a dry, sandy site but capable of growing nearly anywhere, Sand Pine has no pest or disease issues and grows fast! If you want a true, old-school Florida Christmas tree, Sand Pine is it.
Regardless of the species you choose, implementing the following few maintenance tips and expectations will lend best results:
- Cut/remove J or circling roots before planting.
- Plant just higher than ground level.
- Refill the hole with native soil from the site.
- Regular irrigation for the first several months of their lives is necessary and trees will benefit from supplemental fertilizer applications twice a year (spring and mid-summer).
- Shaping trees each summer with hedge shears to achieve the desired dense, compact shape will allow for a uniform tree with no “holes”.
- Plant several trees per year to ensure a nice tree come December, just in case.
- Florida grown Christmas trees will NOT have the exact look of fir or spruce. Adjust expectations accordingly.
- Most Florida grown Christmas trees do NOT have rigid branches and cannot support heavy ornaments. Again, adjust expectations accordingly.
While Christmas tree species that perform well in the Panhandle will not have the exact look of a classic fir or spruce sourced from the Carolinas, they certainly mimic the look and there is something to be said for walking outside and harvesting your own tree to put presents under! For more information on growing your own Christmas trees or other horticultural topics, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office! Happy New Year!