Consider the conifer. Few plants are more useful. We build our houses from conifers, make pencils and matches. We sap them for turpentine, mill them for paper. But only at Christmas do so many of us succumb to the romance of the scent and symmetry of the conifer.
The name conifer means "cone bearing" and takes in an estimated 550 species of trees and shrubs. But almost more characteristic of the species than the cones they bear are the needles. Essentially linear leaves, their compact form and light, waxy coating prevents moisture loss in scorching heat, and protects the leaves from extreme wind and cold.
No plant type is more resilient in more landscapes, from the desert to the edge of the arctic. Their gummy resin makes them supple enough to slough off accumulating snow, the weight of which would snap the branches of seemingly stronger trees. Perhaps most ingenious are the cones. These slow-maturing wooden flowers that seem to have louvered petals can close tightly to protect seeds from fire, or open to toss the load to the wind.
To most of us, pines, firs and spruces are much the same thing. "Most tree dealers think so," laughs Michael Barbour, a professor of plant ecology at UC Davis. But they're not. To distinguish among them, he offers this basic rule of thumb. "The spruces and firs grow on normal soils in more moderate conditions, and pines grow on rocky outcrops or sandy soils that don't hold much moisture." In other words, the pines are the tough guys.
For those interested in our local varieties, Barbour recommends "Conifers of California" (Cachuma Press, 1999) by forestry biologist and retired University of Utah professor Ronald Lanner. It's paperback for a reason. Every hiker should own a copy. In it, Lanner shows us that not only does California have more cone-bearing trees than anywhere else in the United States, it also has the largest type (the sugar pines of the Sierra Nevada forest), the tallest type (the redwoods of the northern coast), and the oldest (a 4,862-year-old bristlecone pine near Mammoth). That's not just the oldest pine tree, Lanner says, "that's the oldest verified age for any tree."
But as superlative as California's conifers appear to be, the ones native to the southern end of the state, such as Big Cone Spruce, are not used as Christmas trees. Instead, dealers have got the Christmas trade down to pretty much a handful of types: the Noble fir (from Oregon and Washington), Fraser fir (North Carolina), Douglas fir (Northern California) and incense cedar (Northern California). The tree most prized for its color, shape and "needle retention characteristics" is the Noble fir. The hardy local pines, with their unruly branches, just don't look the part.
Gary Chastagner, a plant pathologist at Washington State University near Seattle, traced the evolution of the Christmas tree industry in the magazine Plant Health Progress. It began in Europe, he found, with the pagan custom of celebrating winter solstice with aromatic evergreen cuttings.
By the Renaissance, Germans were using whole firs, and by the 18th century, German mercenaries fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War were fashioning Christmas trees in the U.S.
Fast forward another 80 years, and Christmas trees were being sold in New York. By 1945, 33 million American households had them. The Christmas tree industry was supposed to grow as fast as the trees could be planted, laments Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Assn., but the promised post-World War II boom never came, even though the number of American homes with trees doubled to 75 million. The boom came instead for fake trees.
This pains Minturn, a Christmas tree farmer in Hilmar, in the San Joaquin Valley. "Real trees are recyclable," he protests. "Artificial ones aren't. They're made from petrochemicals. Real trees come from America; artificial ones are imported." Of the real trees used to celebrate Christmas, 95% come from farms.
Minturn says not only do Christmas tree farms take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, they are important refuges for wildlife. "It's a plus-plus to have a tree farm in your area," he says. "We have lots of insects, birds. Many of our farms have deer and a lot of the smaller animals--quail, skunks, possums, raccoons, owls."
His Web site directs Californians to the organization's nearest "choose and cut" farm. Certainly one such outlet, Lyon's Christmas Tree Farm on the industrial drag of Washington Boulevard in Pico Rivera, needs all the ecological plus-pluses it can get.
Bud Lyon has been growing a crop of some 6,500 trees here in a strip of land underneath the local utility company's power lines for more than 30 years.