A few years ago, my roommates and I decided we would hunt our own Christmas tree from the forest near our home. It would be an adventure, a bonding experience. We lived way up north in Whitehorse, Canada, and this seemed like the only appropriate, or even acceptable, way for a group of outdoorsy 20-somethings to go about the task of holiday decorating.

We set out with our axes, saws, and pick-up truck down the road, up the mountain behind our house, and into the boreal forest. This was technically illegal, but we ignored the government literature, helpfully pointing out places within city limits where you can legally take a tree. We were feeling audacious.

We found a spot to park and started our nature walk. It was fun, in and of itself, but the Christmas tree prospects left us wanting. Sure, we all agreed we had no expectation of a “perfect” tree — all full and bushy — but this was something else. Even at 20-feet tall, the trees were little more than long, skinny spears with a few mostly bare twigs poking out here and there. We cursed our high latitude and elevation, and then settled on a spruce that had some foliage around the bottom. It was at least twice as tall as our living room ceiling, so we just lopped off the top half to save the relatively well-formed bottom. One side of the tree was completely bare so we put it in a corner.

Grey Mountain in Whitehorse, Yukon. The scene of the crime.
Grey Mountain in Whitehorse, Yukon. The scene of the crime.

How naive we were. We’d set out looking for a Christmas tree and we’d come home with, well, a tree. As Mike Flatt, owner of Cowichan Valley Christmas Trees in British Columbia, Canada, explains, that’s where we went wrong. The thing about wild trees is that they’re wild. Getting that perfect Christmas tree silhouette has nothing to do with genetic engineering and everything to do with careful and attentive cultivation.

“It’s just a matter of constant pruning every year to get the desired shape,” says Flatt. “You’ve got to trim the bottom, and go up towards the top, and then you’ve got to cut the top runner, the one that goes up, when it gets to a certain height. Otherwise it will just keep on going and it will grow tall, but won’t bush in at the bottom.”’

This Douglas fir has been cultivated for 20 years as a bonsai. It is very unlike a Christmas tree.
This Douglas fir has been cultivated for 20 years as a bonsai. It is very unlike a Christmas tree.

There are many varieties of pine, spruce, and fir that will all make a good Christmas tree, but if one species is king, it’s the mighty Douglas fir. The Douglas fir has short, dark green needles that radiate on all sides, and it’s among the most popular Christmas tree species — the most popular among people who really care about this sort of thing.

Close up of a Douglas fir.
Close up of a Douglas fir.

The reason? They grow fast, says Flatt. And that means Christmas tree farms can grow more of them and sell them for less.

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“There’s nothing wrong with a Douglas fir, as long as it’s not — I was going to say a Charlie Brown, but some people want Charlie Browns,” says Flatt. “They don’t want them all — tight. Everybody’s different.”

At a fundamental level, Christmas tree species are no different from their wild counterparts — a good quality batch of seedlings from a forestry company will do for a start, says Flatt. From there, it’s about keeping them alive and pruning them into shape.

“That first year is crucial,” he says. “I planted 300 in the spring and I think I must have lost at least 95 percent with the drought. They were just wiped out completely. So they’re just brown sticks now.”

A Fraser fir Christmas tree plantation.
A Fraser fir Christmas tree plantation.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds. You’ve got to get them established, and then just look after them for those first few years, and then you start to prune after two or three years,” says Flatt. “If you just leave them, they’ll just go to the sky and be a tree. If I just let mine go, they’d be 30, 40, 50 feet, eventually. And that’s useless.”

After about seven years, you have a perfect Christmas tree, or at least one that’s attractive to a person, with a soft spot for the underdog.

So if you like your Christmas trees round and full, skip the forest and head for the farm. And thank your farmer — your tree was carefully preened and tended to over many years so that your home will be warm and bright.

Photos via Bruce Barrett / Flickr, nostri-imago / Flickr, Soil-Science.info / Flickr, Dean Beeler / Flickr, Noel / Flickr

Jacqueline Ronson is a science writer based on Vancouver Island, Canada. Before that she lived way up in Whitehorse, where she reported for the Yukon News. These days she likes to talk to smart people about the future of the planet, ride her bicycle, play her banjo, and frolic.