Comparisons are often made between conifers for sale as fresh Christmas trees and those grown in home landscapes. While all are conifers, characteristics of the numerous species vary. As a result, they tend to be best for one use or the other, rather than both.
Consider what we look for in the perfect Christmas tree. It needs to be full, have a nice shape, and have both needles and a branch structure that make it easy to decorate. From the grower perspective, it should grow fairly fast and be easy to care for.
Now look at what makes conifers good landscape trees. We usually want fast growth, good form, and an attractive appearance. Now add adaptability to all our seasons, local soils, and pests.
The mature size, all too often overlooked, also needs to be considered to assure the tree is a good fit to the landscape plan, and the tree needs to have a long expected life.
Two long-standing Christmas tree favorites are balsam fir and Scotch (properly called Scots) pine. While a nicely shaped, short needled, fragrant tree that is easy to decorate, the balsam fir struggles with our warm summers this far south, so is a poor landscape choice.
Scots pine is the most popular pine for the holidays and is a good fit when grown as a Christmas tree crop. For long-term use in landscapes, they can be pest and problem prone with age, so may not be a good fit.
Of the pines, white pine probably is the closest to being a good fit for the holidays inside and as a long-term landscape tree. Once again, make sure there is room for it to grow, and keep them away from deicing salt used on roads. Austrian pines are durable, adaptable trees for landscapes but poor fits for most indoor holiday uses.
Spruces, including Colorado (blue or green), Norway, and white, are popular landscape trees. Be sure to have the space for the mature specimen to grow. As Christmas trees, they can be used, but be aware the needles of Colorado are quite sharp.
The other consideration for landscape use is the wide array of dwarf conifers. These trees offer some of the attractive features of the large mature tree in a compact size and growth habit. This group gets attention for landscape use applications, rather than cutting to bring inside to decorate for the holidays.
So the wide world of conifers is out there. The key to selecting any species is matching each to the intended use, whether indoors this week or outside for decades.
• Bruce Spangenberg is Horticulture Department chairman at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake.