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FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Scent of Christmas Past

By Vincent Lazaneo, for Let's Talk Plants! December 2021 (First published in LTP! 12/01/2017).

Remember when cut fir trees used for Christmas décor had a pleasant, piney scent? That seasonal aroma you enjoyed in the past may now be absent unless the decorations you hang on your tree include a pine scented ornament.

I have not purchased a cut Christmas tree for many years, but my curiosity was aroused when a friend told me that for more than a decade, the cut fir trees sold seasonally in our area have not had a good, piney scent. This claim may be true. Some fir trees have little or no piney scent, according to Lynn Wunderlich, Farm Advisor, UC Cooperative Extension Central Sierra.

Wunderlich said, “I have been working with Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana, and Turkish fir, Abies bornmuelleriana, which are true firs. These varieties are very popular with growers in the Pacific Northwest because they have fantastic resistance to aphids and phytophthora fungi. The trees have a beautiful structure with a blue tinged color under the needles but they have little or no pine smell.” Other firs, including white fir, Abies concolor, have a nice piney aroma, Wunderlich said, but “they also have more pest and disease problems so growers tend to avoid them.”

Even conifers with a good scent can lose their aroma after the trees are harvested. Many Christmas trees are cut well ahead of the holiday season, and time is their enemy. High temperatures, low humidity, and wind can quickly degrade the quality of a cut tree. The loss of water by foliage (transpiration) continues after trees are cut. A tree will soon desiccate and lose its aroma unless it is stored in a cool, humid environment or given supplemental hydration.

To get the freshest holiday tree, buy your tree as soon as possible after it is delivered to a retail outlet or visit a local tree farm and cut your own. When you buy a cut tree, check it for freshness by running a hand lightly over several branches. No more than a few needles should fall from the tree. Bring your tree home immediately and if you must travel very far, place the tree in your vehicle or wrap it in a tarp to prevent water loss and wind damage.

When you arrive home, place your tree in a shaded location and spray it with water to remove dust and hydrate needles. Make a fresh cut at a slight angle on the butt of the tree, about an inch above the original cut to expose fresh wood. Then place the tree in a large container of water. A cut tree can initially absorb from two to three gallons of water a day. Check daily and keep the reservoir full.

Keep your tree away from heat sources when you bring it indoors. Avoid direct exposure to sunny windows, fireplaces, electric heaters, and furnace vents. When the tree’s needles begin to dry out or turn brown, remove it from your home. A dry tree is very combustible and can pose a serious fire hazard.


Vincent Lazaneo, the San Diego Horticultural Society's 2004 Horticulturist of the Year, is UC Urban Horticulture Advisor Emeritus. He has a master’s degree in horticulture and a teaching credential in vocational agriculture from UC Davis. In 1983, Vince began the Master Gardener program in San Diego. Vince frequently contributes, or has contributed to, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Mira Mesa Living, and other publications, and he enjoys growing specialty plants in his home garden, reading, hiking, and fishing.


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