Places to buy fresh-cut Christmas trees in Hampton Roads

Despite the convenience of using an artificial Christmas tree, Americans still have a fondness for the real thing.

During 2010, U.S. consumers purchased 27 million farm-grown Christmas trees, a slight increase from the previous year, according to a press release by the National Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Those farms also planted 40 million new tree seedlings in 2010 to replace harvested crops and to meet future demand.

Before you say faux Christmas trees save forests, think about the impact of artificial trees which are petroleum-based products, usually manufactured in primarily foreign factories, especially China, according to the growers association.

In addition, Christmas tree farms provide refuge for wildlife, stabilize soil, protect water supplies and offer scenic landscapes. Often, Christmas trees are grown on soil that doesn't support other crops, and they provide jobs and revenue for an American industry, whether it's in the field or on the tree lot near you.

At Smithfield Gardens on Route 17 in Suffolk, Christmas trees like the popular Fraser fir are the garden center's specialty during December.

"Every year, we get our shipment from a family-owned company in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina," says general manger Les Parks.

"We sell only Fraser firs because we feel they are the best cut Christmas tree."

The Fraser fir is the sought-after tree because its short needles make it easy to hang ornaments, and needle retention scores high in testing, without or with water. It's also soft to the touch and somewhat fragrant. Other popular species for Christmas trees include Virginia and white pine, Norway and Colorado blue spruce and native eastern red cedar.

But, Fraser fir is what you find most often. Its native range is the southeastern Appalachian highlands at elevations more than 5,000 feet where the air is misty and rain plentiful, according to Parks. They grow natively in just a few places, including Mt. Rogers in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina and Clingman's Dome in Tennessee. The first person to identify the fir, Abies fraseri, as a distinct species was a Scotch botanist named John Fraser in the 1780s.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Forest Service and North Carolina extension agents produced Fraser fir seedlings, and discovered the tree would grow well at lower elevations, often where nothing else would thrive. That led to Christmas tree crops in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.

In the late 1950s, the imported balsam wooly adelgid killed Fraser firs and several other trees, so most of the native ranges have been decimated or weakened. Commercial growers protect their crops, according to Parks, and controls are being researched for wild stands.

"Hopefully, a solution can be found so this wonderful tree will again grow as easily in its native habitat, as it does at the tree farm where it waits to brighten someone's home for the holidays," says Parks.

Christmas tree tips

•Know what tree size (height and width) you need before heading to buy or cut one — trees always look smaller outdoors and bigger indoors.

•Run a branch through your enclosed hand; needles should not come off easily. Many garden centers display their trees in stands of water to protect their freshness.

•Bend the outer branches — they should be pliable. If they are brittle and snap easily, the tree is too dry.

•At home, a tree can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location. Place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket that is kept full of water.

•Make a fresh cut to remove about a 1/2-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don't cut the trunk at an angle, or into a v-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.

•In general, a good tree stand should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. Devices are available that help maintain a constant water level in the stand.