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Choose the choicest locally grown Christmas tree

By Kristen Plank
University of Georgia

University of Georgia horticulturist Mark Czarnota won’t be buying his Christmas tree from a box store. He’s focusing on Georgia-grown in his house and encouraging others to do the same.

Czarnota is an assistant professor of horticulture on the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Griffin, Ga., campus. He works in all aspects of weed control for the nursery and landscape industries, small fruits, floriculture and Christmas trees.

He buys locally to support agriculture, figuring fewer than 150 Christmas tree growers are left in the state, including small farmers. The rise in land values, he said, leaves little for growing holiday trees.

“We can’t provide even half the amount of Christmas trees needed for our own state,” Czarnota said. This makes importing trees very popular.

With such a high demand for trees every season, current research efforts are under way to introduce new Christmas tree species for the Southeast, Czarnota said. Techniques are changing, too, that may allow the state’s farmers to grow tree species they can’t grow now.

But until these trees are available, he suggests these varieties:

“Four main conifer species are grown in Georgia: Leyland cypress, Virginia pine, Arizona cypress and Eastern red cedar,” Czarnota said.

Fraser fir, probably the most popular imported cut Christmas tree, can be good for small farms, he said. The tree’s stiff branches hold ornaments well. But there are limits to growing it in Georgia.

“There are limited high-altitude places here for growing fir species,” Czarnota said. Fraser fir prefers altitudes higher than 3,000 feet to grow well.

But the state’s own Christmas trees, such as the Leyland and Arizona cypress, are becoming more and more popular for other reasons.

The Leyland cypress, a hybrid of Monterey cypress and Alaskan cedar, is grown in the South. Like the Arizona cypress, it can be cultivated in three to five years from seed to tree. Firs take five to eight years before they’re harvested.

“Leylands are popular, too, because they’re sterile trees,” Czarnota said. “This means that no cones or pollen are produced, and the tree will not shed in your home, a great advantage if you suffer from allergies.”

To find the best Georgia tree for the season, look around to see what local farmers offer. You won’t find a fresher, healthier tree anywhere else, he said.

“You may run into many different types of Leyland cypress cultivars with scented foliage (Irish Mint), bluish foliage (Naylor’s Blue) or variegated foliage (Jubilee),” Czarnota said.

Arizona cypress, he said, has two cultivars: Carolina Sapphire and Blue Ice.

“Both of these species make great cut Christmas trees, having good needle-holding ability (and) good fragrance,” he said. The only downfall is that the limb structure is weak. They don’t support heavy ornaments well.

Inspect your tree to be sure it’s in good health.

“Lightly pull the needles,” Czarnota said. On a fresh, healthy tree, they won’t easily separate from the stem.

After you cut the tree at the farm, or if you buy it as a precut tree, make a fresh cut once you get home, before you place it in a water stand. Christmas tree growers may do this for you.

“Any freshly cut tree will consume a considerable amount of water on the first day,” Czarnota says, “so make sure the end of the trunk is at least 1 inch below water level.”

Czarnota recommends keeping the tree out of direct sunlight, too, and adding preservatives to the water to keep the tree healthy and curb bacterial growth.

(Kristen Plank is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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