COUNTRY & GARDEN: The right tree can spruce up the festive decorations

The most popular type of Christmas tree famously sheds its needles all over the carpet. Avoid this, and add fragrance, by choosing carefully. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Culture
OUR ENTHUSIASM for tradition at this time of year has guaranteed the survival of the Christmas tree, but has also made us slow to respond to the introduction of new varieties that are better adapted to our modern homes than the type that most of us buy. The Norway Spruce, Picea Abies, introduced to this country as a decoration by Prince Albert more than 150 years ago, is still the tree that nearly two-thirds of us put in our homes - that is, if we have a real tree at all. But however traditional it might have become, the Norway Spruce is not good in homes with central heating; and spruces are famous for shedding their needles all over the carpet and into our clothes.

Needle retention is obviously a feature to consider if you are looking at one of the alternative varieties now on offer from growers, and if it is your main concern, it is simply a question of avoiding the spruces. Shape is also important. There are many conifers that look good in their forest habitat, when left to reach their natural height, but they would not transfer indoors in a smaller format. Others, like the Thuja Plicata, have branches that are not dense enough to hold baubles, although this is a good variety for foliage decorations because of its intense aroma of citrus.

Scent is the characteristic that is most often overlooked in Christmas trees. Many firs have a strong smell, which is accentuated at this time of year by the cold weather, and this can be an added bonus once the tree is brought indoors. A spectacular example of this is the Abies Grandis, or Grand Silver Fir, an American variety that is seen every Christmas outside the White House, and whose foliage has a powerful tangerine smell. In this country it is rarely brought indoors, although the branches are sometimes used to make wreaths and provide decorative foliage.

When buying a tree, it is important to get one that is fresh, and hasn't been sitting around somewhere for several weeks before you take it home. This doesn't necessarily mean buying a rooted tree; in fact, some growers won't sell trees that have been dug up, rather than cut, since their chances of survival are so small. Some people manage to keep a rooted Christmas tree alive for several years, but these tend to be the exception. It is almost impossible, even for an expert, to dig up a tree without damaging some of its roots; and that, combined with the extremes of temperature involved in moving it from outside to in, is often more than most young trees can cope with. Rooted or not, take a careful look at the shape of the tree, and its general condition. If it is wrapped in netting, ask the supplier to take it out again so that you can examine it; it can always be rewrapped if you decide to buy it.

Crucial to any tree, rooted or not, is water, particularly if you are going to set it in a warm room. The average tree will need a litre of water a day during the time it is in the house. Cut away a circle of bark around the bottom of the trunk, to expose the part of the tree that carries the water up into the branches. Stand the tree in a container, and keep watering right up until 12th night.

The biggest-selling trees in Britain after the Norway spruces are the Nordmann and the Noble firs. The Nordmann fir is a tidy-looking tree, whose lemon-scented branches sometimes seem so neat that they are almost unreal. The branches are good for holding decorations, as they don't overlap each other in the unruly style of other varieties. Much fuller is the Noble fir, which has aromatic foliage but with a blueish tinge, and needles that point upwards. This is also a good variety for Christmas, but it needs a lot of attention from the grower, which has meant that it has never been available in sufficient numbers to make it really popular.

The hottest tip for the 21st century from most of the experts is the Fraser Fir, a Canadian tree that is more attractive and reliable than either the Nordmann or the Noble varieties. This year the Frasers are hard to find, unless you live in Devon, where one or two growers are already selling them. But in the next couple of years, they should be widely available. If they do catch on, carpets covered with needles from Christmas to Easter could be a thing of the past.