HOME-grown Christmas trees are a recent success story for UK forestry. The United Kingdom still imports Christmas trees grown in Europe but also exports a substantial number of its own but, on balance, the UK is essentially self-sufficient in commercially-grown Christmas trees. Despite different species being grown around the world, the country's success is almost entirely down to Norway spruce, the original and traditional British Christmas tree, and Nordmann fir, a Danish development which eclipsed the former's popularity some years ago.

Thanks go to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband and consort, for introducing Norway spruce as a celebratory Christmas tree from his and the tree’s native Germany in the mid- nineteenth century. History suggests Norway spruce was first introduced into Britain from Scandinavia as a forest tree species as early as the fifteenth century, so there would have been a supply of the species once the concept of illuminated, decorated Christmas trees took root.

Forestry Journal:  Prince Albert Prince Albert

Nordmann fir is essentially a donation from Denmark and Danish growers who took the species from its native Eurasian range and redesigned and developed a commercial Christmas tree. Many Danish growers have migrated to Britain over the last three decades to establish Christmas tree farms growing Nordmann fir for British and European markets. They were instrumental in helping the UK secure self-sufficiency.

However, preoccupation with Nordmann fir and Norway spruce hides the fact that scores of other fir and spruce species, as well as pines cypresses and other types of conifers, are used as Christmas trees around the world, In North America, there is a monopoly on native conifer species used as Christmas trees.

To be fair some of these species have already penetrated the UK market to offer consumers much more variety in real, living Christmas trees. Perhaps 2021 is the time for an extended variety of species to take off, with predictions of a Christmas trees shortage this year.

The reason, dare I say, is post-Brexit red tape. Some UK growers say companies who usually import at least some of their Christmas tree stock from the European Union may be less inclined to do so now. They appear anxious to avoid increased amounts of bureaucracy, following UK’s withdrawal from the bloc and all the benefits afforded by the ‘Union Territory’s’ free trade market. Associated problems are clearly most serious for seasonal, perishable commodities like real Christmas trees which are sensitive and susceptible to delays during transport, customs clearance and marketing.

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According to The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) six to eight million Christmas trees are sold in UK, with 10 per cent imported from the continent. Over recent years the European Christmas tree market has become a highly integrated entity, but some of the balance created will clearly have been upset by Brexit. Well-documented shortages in the UK labour market are also likely to have a knock-on effect on the harvesting and transportation of trees, say industry observers.

Only 10 per cent of real Christmas trees on sale at Christmas are imported from Europe but enough to put pressure on UK growers and their supplies of marketable trees should European imports not materialise. Best outcome prediction for consumers in 2021 is no acute shortage but retail prices rising in response to tightening supplies.

One downside could be the temptation for UK growers to cut and sell trees earlier in the growth and development cycle than originally planned. This may well forestall shortages for Christmas 2021, but cause even more severe shortfalls in future years. British growers say anticipated price rises caused by a tighter market will be over and above price rises already in the system due to increased costs of raw materials and other inputs. These include wood for pallets, labour, fertiliser, labels and transport, and leading to a general increase in wholesale prices.

Fake (artificial) Christmas trees claim an overwhelming portion of the UK market. A survey of consumers conducted in 2019 showed 75 per cent intended to put up a tree for Christmas, but only 14 per cent said they would put up real Christmas trees. With the predictions for shortages of real trees 2021 could be the year when fake trees deliver the final coup de grace. In a clearly ominous sign a leading company claimed a 70 per cent increase in sales of artificial Christmas trees in August 2021 compared with August 2020.
Several reasons are given for ascendancy of artificial trees including long term cost savings and the hassle of purchasing, clearing up and disposing of real trees on an annual basis. Surprisingly perhaps variety is rarely given a mention. Materials and design technology now allows companies to design and manufacture a massive range of canopy shapes, forms and colour combinations, thus copying everything in real tree life from the open-canopied pine to the tight and rigid form of a dense-canopied cypress. Indeed such is the level of sophistication that you can actually go out and purchase an artificial Fraser fir, Noble fir or other ‘species’. A much wider range of real Christmas trees would clearly go a long way to counter this apparent advantage.

Six of the best with a difference

The following is an account of six alternative species, four North American natives and two of European origin. All are already grown in the UK for the Christmas tree trade but mostly for smaller niche markets.

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens)

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Picea pungens was discovered in 1862 growing in meadows and along streams high up in the Rocky Mountains. Its new found fame spread quickly and far and wide. Today it is one of the most widely planted landscape trees in North America as well as the official State Tree of Colorado and Utah. Given the tree’s sheer beauty it did not take long for Colorado blue spruce to be taken on as a Christmas tree, and it is now one of the most popular Christmas trees in Europe as well as North America.

Blue spruce is valued for its canopy form, colour and needle retention. Symmetrical form and attractive glaucous (green/blue) foliage sometimes with a silvery sheen are two key attributes for this spruce’s use as a Christmas tree. Colorado blue spruce has an excellent natural shape and requires minimal shearing. Strong branches hold heavy ornaments and retention of the thin, pointy needles is superior to all other spruces.

However, the needles are rather sharp and this may require the tree decorator to wear gloves.


Pice pungea adapts readily to a wide range of soils but requires a full-light situation for optimum growth and canopy quality. Growth rate is variable at 1 to 2 feet per year depending on conditions. Blue spruce’s popularity as an ornamental tree means North American consumers utilize it as a living Christmas tree for planting in the garden after the holiday season. However, Colorado blue spruce does suffer severe damage from a number of pests in its native North America. Prominent are spruce bark beetle, spruce budworm and the western spruce dwarf mistletoe which causes masses of abnormal branches called ‘witches brooms’.

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

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The sheer size of North America, as well as tradition, makes it difficult to determine its favourite Christmas tree. That said Fraser fir stands out from the rest in the United Sates at least. Named after John Fraser (1750-1811) the Scottish botanist and explorer of the southern Appalachians, Fraser fir is closely related to the Balsam fir and often called ‘southern balsam fir’.

Fraser fir is a uniformly pyramidal-shaped tree with robust branches turned up ever so slightly to give a definite compact form. These characteristics together with good retention of the soft, dark-green needles with eye-catching, silvery undersides, a pleasing aroma and excellent shipping qualities make it a popular choice of Christmas tree. Fraser fir trees also have a bit of space between the tiers of firm and hearty branches which is clearly helpful when decorating the tree. Most Fraser fir earmarked for the Christmas tree trade is grown in North Carolina.

But Fraser fir does not have all its own way. Few tree species appear to escape the attentions of fungus-like, Phytophthora plant pathogens. Commercial production of Fraser fir in North America is limited by no less than four species of Phytophthora - Phytophthora cinnamomi, P. drechsleri, P. citricola, and P. cactorum. All four species have been recorded in the UK.

Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

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‘Grand’ is the right description for this potentially massive fir reaching heights of 300 feet in its native Pacific North West region. Grand fir is steeped in traditions and folklore of native north-west Americans but more recently used as a Christmas tree within this region of North America. It has been reported as a minor Christmas tree species in Washington State and Oregon but as a major species in Idaho and Montana.

The grand fir canopy is rich dark green with long needles up to 5cm long. Both needles and branches are soft to the touch but not especially firm and thus benefiting from decoration with lighter ornaments. Grand fir is also known for a ‘delicious fragrance’ combining the traditional Christmas tree smell with a citrus-like scent. When sheared, trees produce the most beautiful dense foliage with a powerful fragrance.

Grand fir has good regeneration credentials, which means you may well be able to find your own Christmas tree if you happen to live near a mature, cone-bearing forest stand.

Eight to 10 years of growth will usually produce a marketable tree. Grand fir is a shade tolerant species which thrives in high rainfall conditions and tends to be planted in the more northern and western areas of the British Isles.

Noble Fir (Abies procera)

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A native fir of Northern Oregon and Washington, Noble fir was discovered in 1825 by Scottish Botanist David Douglas who originally named the tree Abies nobilis. North America generally regards Noble fir as the most attractive of its native firs, of which there are many. By attaining heights of 250 feet and with an entirely symmetrical canopy, ‘Noble’ is clearly an appropriate name for this fir.

Noble fir is highly valued as a commercial Christmas tree due to its sheer beauty, stiff branch-structure and durability when indoors. Accordingly Noble fir has traditionally snatched a significant slice of the Christmas tree market in the Pacific North-West and is widely used as a winter green to make wreaths, door swags, garlands and other living Christmas decoration. Indeed one of its alternative names is ‘Christmas tree’. Trees grow well under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions, although specific geographic areas have been identified for the growth and production of superior Christmas tree forms. Seed for propagation is sourced from these areas.

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

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A true native of the British Isles, it oddly took North America to universally recognise the benefits of Pinus sylvestris as a Christmas tree. However, North Americans predictably call the tree Scotch pine probably due to their obsession with the ‘amber nectar’ from ‘north of the border’.

This tough and hardy pine has a high survival rate, dark green foliage and stiff branches ideally suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. Needle retention is excellent and trees hold onto them right through harvest, shipping and display. However, they are described as being as sharp as pins with glove wearing recommended when harvesting and decorating trees.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association of North America, Scots pine is frequently used as a Christmas tree in North America with significant plantings in the Eastern United States and Canada. Ironically, it has not featured prominently as a Christmas tree in Europe, although there are niche markets in Scotland and parts of Northern England. And of increasing wider interest, not least because it is the country’s only native, true cone-bearing conifer.

Serbian spruce (Picea omorika)

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If you don’t want to go as far as North America, there are alternative European species not yet exploited by the British Christmas tree industry. One of these is Serbian spruce, a very close relative of Norway spruce but altogether more elegant in shape, superior in colour, bearing softer needles and definitely better at needle retention. Its native range is the Balkan region of south-eastern Europe, including eastern Bosnia as well as Serbia.

Serbian spruce is much better suited to colder conditions than its close cousin the Norway spruce and better suited to areas which regularly experience late frosts.

This is a slim tree with a narrow canopy shape and ideally suited to smaller spaces and as the centrepiece in a room. The tree’s charming two-tone, dark green and glaucous (light green/blue/grey) coloured foliage gives the canopy a natural decorative edge and therefore suitable for minimalist decoration. Sainsbury’s traditionally sells container-grown Serbian spruce for a good price at Christmas. I have a Serbian spruce tree purchased some five years ago. It was planted straight into our garden and is now a sleek and elegant 7-8 foot specimen.

Two trees that will never make Christmas ‘this side of the pond’

I can’t resist highlighting two more species which are popular as Christmas trees in North America but which could never make the grade over here for entirely different reasons.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

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With a broad natural distribution down the eastern seaboard of the United States from Maine to Georgia, eastern white pine was the conifer most valued by the early colonists and right up until the end of the nineteenth century. Needle retention is very good. The tree imparts little aroma but, by the same token, results in fewer allergic reactions than do many of the more aromatic species. Sheared specimens are often preferred for use as Christmas trees, although they may become too dense for hanging larger ornaments. A good 2m tree can be grown in six to eight years on fertile sites.

This makes you wonder why Eastern White Pine never made it ‘over here’ as a timber tree let alone a Christmas tree. British foresters and arborists will more likely know Pinus strobus as ‘Weymouth pine’ brought to the UK as seed from the North American colonies by one Captain George Weymouth in 1605, but that’s where any progress with this pine on these isles goes. This is down to a serious disease called white pine blister rust, caused by a Basidiomycete fungal pathogen (Cronartium ribicola) which requires two very disparate plant hosts to complete its life cycle. The alternate host in this case is the genus Ribes which includes blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry. It was soon realised that any successful planting of Pinus strobus on a commercial scale in UK would require elimination of white pine blister rust, which in turn would require the destruction of all species of the Ribes genus in the wider environment.

Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii)

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Leyland Cypress is notorious in the UK, but not as a Christmas tree. Indeed ‘Good Will to All Men’ is generally not a feature of this hybrid conifer species first identified in the UK but now quite popular as a Christmas tree in North America.

Leyland cypress is a rare example of a so-called natural hybrid cross between two ‘wild ‘conifers and discovered towards the end of the nineteenth century. Leyland cypress now describes a group of commercially-bred trees which, like the original, are hybrids of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Alaskan cedar/Nookta cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis). The first Leyland cypress (Haggerston Grey) was discovered and identified by a ‘Mr C.J. Leyland’ at Leighton Hall in Wales in 1888, but it did not arrive in the United States until 1941.

Once there it was recognised and developed for the Christmas tree market first in South Carolina. The Leighton Green cultivar created in 1911 with dark green foliage and a heavy stout structure is used as a commercial Christmas tree in the United States.

Indeed Leyland cypress is prized as a Christmas tree in the South Eastern United States where Homestead Christmas Tree Farm and Nursery at Hampton in Georgia State is just one of the businesses which propagates, grows and sells Leyland cypress for use as commercial Christmas trees. However, I can’t see this happening in the UK because Leyland cypress ‘carries too much other baggage’.