A Brief Historical Contemplation of Christmas Trees
People have been decorating their homes with plants for millennia, for longer. There are multiple (and somewhat disputed) origin stories surrounding the Christmas tree in Europe, but all of them center around the idea of decorating an evergreen tree, often with tinsel, wool, string, and baked treats – important and useful items, offerings to something beyond themselves.
During the cold Northern European winters, when the days are short and many trees lose their leaves, evergreens (trees that do not lose their leaves) stand out in the stark landscape. Humans are naturally drawn to green plants; living beings that give us nourishment, and life.
What more would draw your eye, give your soul hope that warmer suns will come, than a tree refusing to let go of its leaves when so much around it has become bare? Remember, the ancient people did not have screens to stare at all night. They had nature to observe and contemplate (and we still do today as well).
So, why would we not venerate these tall, statuesque beings? And how do we venerate something? Why, we decorate it, of course. We decorate ourselves, don’t we? With wool, metal, string, and… baked treats? Well, perhaps not that part.
Snow covered conifer trees. The original Christmas tree.
The Light of Being
My uncle tells a story each Christmas that I find meaningful. During the darkest month, December (in the Northern Hemisphere), we put lights upon the tree (electric lights in our modern era; a candle before electricity was harnessed) to represent the light of Christ. This light shines when all else becomes dark, giving assurance that light itself has not died, that hope for tomorrow has not died.
Whether you are a Christian or not, finding hope even during the darkest hour (metaphorically speaking) is a reason to celebrate and give gratitude.
A light in the darkness of night.
Common Types of Christmas Trees
One of most common type of Christmas trees used in much of the United States is the fir (Abies). In a slight twist, one of the most iconic Christmas tree types, the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir tree, however it is similar. Other common Christmas tree types are the Nobile fir (Abies procera), Blue spruce (Picea pungens), Balsam fir (Abies balsamea), and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). The list goes on, but these ones are of particular popularlarity.
Needles of the Douglas fir
What do these different tree types have in common? They generally have straight trunks, rich green or even blueish-green needles that don’t shed readily, and of course, that strong scent of terpenes that has become so well associated with Christmas. Terpenes are natural compounds produced by many plants, but particularly conifer trees (and cannabis, as a matter of fact).
Why are spruces, firs, and pines (all within the conifer tree group – cone producing trees) so often used for Christmas? Well, simply because it has become the tradition. As winter tree decoration became associated with the Christmas holiday, these conifer trees were what was available and green during the time of year in the areas of Europe where many Christmas traditions began. Immigrants from these countries brought their traditions to the United States, and although tradition always changes over the passage of time and place, they made their impact on our culture.
We don’t have to use these trees, none of which are native to Southern California, to decorate for Christmas. You can use whatever you want. You can use a potted cactus.
Pine Trees in the Crescenta Valley Landscape
With all this talk of conifer trees, what are the common landscape types found in the Crescenta Valley (and Los Angeles)? There are many native pines in California, however most of them are found at elevations above 5000 feet (but not all natives, such the sea coast loving and San Diego county native, Torrey pine). There are three most commonly found pine trees in our Crescenta Valley landscapes. Let’s take a look.
- The Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis)
This is a large, drought tolerant pine from the Mediterranean. They often have broad, spreading, and irregular canopies. Their trunks and main limbs can twist in unexpected directions, sometimes giving them a lovably confused appearance. They are well suited for our climate, but please don’t plant them near utility lines. They can grow up to 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide. They need space to roam, and severe cutting can fatally damage them.
Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis)
- The Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis)
This tall, straight pine tree is like a towering sentinel, watching over the neighborhood. They can grow up to 80 feet tall and 35 feet wide. They are often used to provide shelter and shade along the sides of tall buildings, because of their particularly upright (and relatively narrow) trunk and branching habit. Again, these trees should not be planted near utility lines, as their height can cause conflict. They have higher water requirements than the Aleppo pine, and we’ve seen many slowly lose vigor, and even die, due to drought conditions.
Canary Island Pines (Pinus canariensis)
- The Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea)
These tall, often rounded trees are also native to the Mediterranean. With a potential height of 80 and a width of 60 feet (most trees of any variety do not grow to the limits of their size range) these trees need space to expand. No utility lines nearby, please! These trees generally do well in our region, as they evolved in a very similar climate, and they are loved for their satisfyingly rounded canopies and broad, flat plate like brownish bark.
Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea)
Do you love pine trees?
We do too. They make great landscape trees, as long as there are certain site conditions present. Pines need full sun and well draining soil. Although they mostly prefer slightly acidic soil (our local soils tend to be more on the alkaline side), they can still thrive in our area. Two of the most important considerations are the type of pine and the specific location where it is to be planted.
Does your property need a spruce up for the holidays? Whether it’s cleaning a landscape, repairing irrigation, or any other landscape project, Creative Concepts Landscape will be happy to discuss possibilities with you. Take a look at our Yelp page and contact us today (818 248-7436), to see what we can do for your landscape.
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape Management