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Great Choices for Living Christmas Trees

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You've thought about whether you wanted a cut, artificial or living Christmas tree. In the end, you decided that you wants a living Christmas tree. Great choice! It's the option that is best for the environment. You get a real tree that you can use as a houseplant or add to your garden. You could even donate it to a local park or school.

There are a few things to remember, though, before you rush out to purchase one:

  • You can't just pick any tree and hope for the best. When you choose the right tree, you will give it a better chance of success. The tree needs to either be one that will grow properly outside in your USDA zone or one that will be a houseplant.

  • If your tree is for outdoor use, you'll need to plan ahead. The planting site needs to be picked out and a hole dug before the ground freezes.

  • Bigger is not always better when it comes to living Christmas trees. It's great to have a tree that will be several feet tall, but remember that it comes with a container and ball of soil attached. This can be quite heavy, so make sure you're able to lug the tree around.

  • The tree will be ok throughout the holiday season if it's a regular houseplant. If it's meant for outdoors, though, you can only keep it inside for about a week. Otherwise the warm temperatures will start stimulating growth since it feels like spring and the tree will get a huge shock when it's placed outdoors in the cold.

  • You need to harden off an outdoor tree when you are bringing it inside and again when it's going back inside. The indoor and outdoor environments are so different that the tree can go into shock or start growing when it shouldn't if you don't gradually get it used to its new location.

Don't let these guidelines scare you off, though. A living Christmas tree will be a wonderful addition to your holiday celebration and provide beauty for many years to come. Here are twelve suggestions to get you started.

1. Aleppo Pine

Picture of Aleppo Pine
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: Pinus halepensis
  • Other Common Names: Jerusalem pine
  • Native to: Mediterranean area
  • USDA Zones: 8-10
  • Height: 30-60' tall

Choose the Aleppo pine for a tree that can do well in drought conditions or poor soils. It will do best as an outdoor tree. Turpentine can be made from the resin of this tree, which is also used to make a Greek wine called retsina.

2. Blue Point Juniper

Picture of the Blue Point cypress
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: Juniperus chinensis 'Blue Point'
  • Native to: Northeast Asia
  • USDA Zones: 4-9
  • Height: 12-15' tall

I came across this specimen at a California garden center in the winter. The long tapered form means that this can work well for a narrower location as needed. The shape develops naturally so not much pruning is usually needed to keep it in a conical form. It can work in most soils from acidic to alkaline and is also resistant to deer and drought.

3. Colorado Blue Spruce

Picture of the National Christmas Tree
Image by Bernt Rostad via Flickr
  • Latin Name: Picea pungens
  • Other Common Names: Colorado spruce, pino real, Blue spruce, silver spruce
  • Native to:Northeastern and western United States
  • USDA Zones: 3-8
  • Height: 30-75' tall

For a more unusual Christmas tree, choose the Colorado blue spruce. The needles are blue to blue-green instead of the more traditional green.

In 1978, a Colorado blue spruce was planted in Washington, DC to serve as the National Christmas Tree. You can see it in the Ellipse, which is located south of the White House. The tree in the picture was just replaced in 2011 after windstorm damage. The new tree is also a Colorado blue spruce.

4. Dwarf Alberta Spruce

Photo of a dwarf Alberta spruce being used for a living Christmas tree
Image by via Flickr
  • Latin Name: Picea glauca 'Conica'
  • Other Common Names:
  • Native to: Northern US and Canada
  • USDA Zones: 2-8
  • Height: 3-12' tall

I've singled this spruce tree out because of its form. This large shrub/small tree is perfect for use as a living Christmas tree since it usually forms a conical shape naturally. You can get a couple of them and use them to frame a walkway for the rest of the year.

5. Italian Stone Pine

Picture of the Italian stone pine
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: Pinus pinea
  • Other Common Names: Umbrella pine
  • Native to: Southern Europe, Lebanon, Turkey
  • USDA Zones: 8-10
  • Height: 30-60' tall

In Europe, pine nuts (known as pignoli) are harvested from this pine tree species and used to make cookies, pesto and other delights. Another name is the umbrella pine due to the way its canopy forms.

6. Korean Fir

Photo of the cones on a Korean fir tree
magnolia1000 via Flickr
  • Latin Name: Abies koreana
  • Other Common Names: Gusang namu
  • Native to: South Korea
  • USDA Zones: 5-7
  • Height: 15-30' tall

The Korean fir is one of the smaller trees in the genus Abies, so it's easier to find a spot to plant it after its stint as a living Christmas tree is done. It also features eye-catching purple cones from a young age.

7. Leyland Cypress

Picture of a Leyland cypress in a container
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: × Cupressocyparis leylandii
  • Other Common Names: Leylandii
  • Native to: This cross was created in Wales by Edward Kemp
  • USDA Zones: 6-10
  • Height: 30-50'+ tall

This tree is a result of crossing the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and the Nootka cypress (Callitropsis nootkatensis). Both are native to different areas of North America and were brought together in Leighton Hall in Wales. An owner of Leighton Hall, Christopher Leyland, lends his moniker to the species and common name.

Choose this tree if you live in an urban area, as it will still be able to grow well if there is salt or pollution in the air. It will also reach a mature height quickly.

8. Monterey Pine

Picture of a Monterey pine in a container
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: Pinus radiata
  • Other Common Names: Radiata pine, insignis pine
  • Native to:California and Mexico
  • USDA Zones: 8-10
  • Height: 50-100' tall

Some nurseries (especially in California) have started selling the Monterey pine for use as a living Christmas tree. In its natural habitat, it has adapted to the threat of fires by having serotinous cones that won't open up until they're hit by a fire.

9. Nordmann Fir

Photo of Nordmann fir
Image by Chhe via Wikimedia
  • Latin Name: Abies nordmanniana
  • Other Common Names: Caucasian fir
  • Native to: Northern Armenia, Russian Caucasus, Georgia and Turkey
  • USDA Zones: 4-6
  • Height: 40-80' tall usually

The Nordmann fir does especially well in containers, so this is another good choice for a living Christmas tree. It's also quite popular as a cut tree for the holidays. A subspecies offered for sale in some areas is the Turkish fir (Abies nordmanniana var. equi-trojani or A. nordmanniana var. bornmuelleriana.)

10. Norfolk Island Pine

  • Latin Name: Araucaria heterophylla
  • Native to: Norfolk Island
  • USDA Zones: 10-11
  • Height: This species can be over 200' tall in favorable conditions.

For Christmas 2011, I bought a Norfolk Island Pine as the living Christmas tree for our little apartment. In most areas of the United States, it's used as a houseplant already. This means that as long as you have a location with bright filtered light (even better if there's some direct sunlight), the tree can live indoors year-round. You can also keep this tropical plant outdoors in the summer as long as you make sure to harden it off first when taking it out or bringing it in.

This tree is related to the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and the bunya-bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii), among others.

11. Palm Trees

A palm tree houseplant can be your Christmas tree
Image by rabanito

I grew up in Southern California where they put lights on palm trees in the landscape. Many people have a palm tree as a houseplant, and you can just wind some lights around it and add some ornaments for a tropical flavor at Christmas.

Some common palm trees used as houseplants include:

  • Fishtail palms (Caryota spp.)
  • Golden cane palm (Dypsis lutescens)
  • Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana)
  • Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)
  • Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
  • Pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)

12. Rosemary

Photo of rosemary in a container
Image by Vanessa Richins Myers
  • Latin Name: Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Native to: Mediterranean area
  • USDA Zones: 6-10
  • Height: Up to 6' tall depending on the variety

A fun trend I've seen in recent years is small rosemary plants for sale in the shape of a cone or a wreath. An advantage of using this subshrub is that you can use it in your cooking too. Cut off a twig to use as a skewer or add some leaves to a favorite dish.

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