Friday, November 29, 2019

High Country Evergreens Make for a Good Christmas

There is something historic about going out in the forest and picking a tree to bring in the home.  As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, I remember my grandparents would visit my Uncle’s farm in the mountains to pick turkey beard for garland and cut an evergreen for the Christmas tree.  My grandfather loved Charlie Brown shaped Christmas trees, as he thought that having all that space between the branches let the ornaments hang nicely.  


Cut Lodgepole Pines

My family has a lot of German heritage, where the origin of the Christmas tree came from.  You may remember singing “Oh, Tannenbaum” when you were in Elementary school.  The Advent calendar, with four candles, greens, nuts and berries, also came from Germany.  Traditionally the German people used firs but now they more commonly use spruce for their Christmas trees.


Upon moving to Colorado in the 90’s, my husband and I decide to carry on the tradition. Our first few winters in Colorado we lived in Summit County above 9,000 ft.  We went to the US Forest Service to get our tree cutting permit.  We picked an area to cut our tree that contained all Lodgepole Pine trees growing very close together.  This made me feel good as we were doing our part to thin the forest. 


They grow naturally at elevations of 8,000-10,000 feet. In the winter, Lodgepole pine needles have a little bit of a yellow cast. The needles are in clusters of two needles (leaves) about 2-3 inches in length, and the orange-brown to gray bark is somewhat scaly.  I used multicolored lights on the tree, though blue may have been better, to make the tree look a deeper green.


Douglas Fir
The type of species available depends on what National Forest you want to cut your tree from. Typical species include:

Douglas fir, Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Lodgepole pine.  In my area in Western Colorado, Pinon Pine and Juniper are also available. 


So let’s discuss where and how these trees grow. 


Douglas fir grows at elevations of 1800 to 8000 ft, usually on northern aspects or under other trees.  The needles are flat, 1-1.5 inches long, soft to the touch and radiate around the twigs.  The cones hang down and have bracts that some people say look like a mouse’s tail.  As a cut Christmas tree, Douglas fir is shorter lasting than other choices.  It’s good choice if you are going to cut closer to Christmas or the day of use.


Subalpine fir has flat small ¾ inch needles that are blunt or notched at the tip.  The bark is grayish-white with pitch blisters.  This tree is found at elevations commonly of 9,000-11,000 ft, but can be from 8,300 ft to timberline.  Subalpine fir is a good pick for a Christmas tree as it holds its needles a long time and the branches are strong.


Engelmann Spruce

Engelmann Spruce grows in the same areas as the Subalpine fir trees.  The needles are 1-inch long, prickly and pointed, from blue to green in color. The bark is grayish-red to purplish-brown, thin and scaly.  The tree is widely used as a Christmas tree.  For planting, make sure you are at higher elevations. 


Ponderosa Pine trees grow at an elevation range of 6,000-8,500 ft.  They have the longest needles of the Colorado pines, ranging from 5-10 inches in length.  The needles grow in bundles of two or three, and look like tufts on the tips of the branches. The bark is black turning orange-brown and scaly with age.  Ponderosa Pine is not a popular Christmas tree, but can be used as one.


Utah Juniper

Juniper, typically Utah or single seed, grow at lower elevations and may have blue berries on them.  They have a distinctive smell, which people seem to love or hate.  The needles are scale-like.  Some people call these cedar trees even though we have no true cedars in Colorado.  These junipers grow at 4,000-7,000 ft elevation.


Pinyon Pine

Pinyon Pines have 1.5 inch needles in that curve towards the stem.  Their cones are short and squat and produce edible pinion nuts. Pinyon pine grows at elevations of 4500 to 7500 ft, and higher with southern exposure.  Some people like the way ornaments hang on their branches.  With recent drought in western Colorado, there are fewer of these available.  Many have suffered from ips beetle after being drought stressed.  Planting to replace would be a good option.


Permit prices for cutting a tree range from $8-20 dollars across the state depending on which National Forest area you are cutting from.  See the national website on tips for cutting a tree.


The forest service has a program to get kids outdoors, including Christmas tree cutting.  Fourth graders, with an Inter-agency pass, can cut a Christmas tree as part of the program.


Contact your local US Forest Service for more information.





By Susan Carter, Horticulture and Natural Resource Agent for CSU Extension, Tri River Area (Mesa, Delta, Montrose and Ouray Counties).

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