Written by: Diana Matthews | Photography by: NC Christmas Tree Association
If you grew up in eastern North Carolina two generations ago, your choices for Christmas trees depended on what was growing on your family’s acreage. Or if you didn’t have your own woods, you got a cedar or pine from someone who did. You knew your tree’s origin in the same way you knew where your eggs and sausages came from.
Our grandparents’ trees were whatever shape nature had made them. They might come equipped with an abandoned bird’s nest as their first “ornament.” Then the family added paper stars, gingerbread men and popcorn strings. The end result was a highly personal Christmas decoration.
With greater urbanization, commercial tree farms and sales lots multiplied in the 1960s. Fraser firs, a crop well suited to North Carolina’s higher elevations, began to dominate the market, with their plush appearance and sturdy branches.
Cut before Thanksgiving and shipped to retailers hundreds of miles away, Fraser firs have become a ubiquitous standard All-American Christmas tree.
In recent years, some consumers are cutting out the middleman by traveling to tree farms in western North Carolina to cut their own Fraser firs. Cut-your-own farms have stepped up advertising that tree selection can be an adventure and not just a shopping trip.
As the tree growers like to say, “No one ever remembers the day they bought the tree at the supermarket.”
But Fraser firs are not the only Christmas trees, and the mountains aren’t the only place to cut your own.
Christmas is closer than you think, and that’s a good thing. Wilmington residents can have a back-to-basics holiday experience without using up a whole day and a whole tank of gas. Many eastern North Carolinians are making a short road trip to choose a more-locally grown pine, cypress, cedar or spruce. They’re having a memorable open-air family adventure. And they’re returning home with the freshest tree they’ve ever had.
The Eastern N.C. Christmas Tree Growers Association website finds tree farms by your zip code. It displays varieties of trees grown on Eastern N.C. farms and describes the advantages of each. Not all farms will grow all varieties, so it’s worth comparing. Some farms offer additional attractions to interest children; most of them offer wreaths as well as tree-cutting and -wrapping services. The site also offers helpful tips for keeping your fresh-cut tree beautiful for weeks.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Tommy Nayland, owner of Northlake Christmas Trees and Nursery in Benson. “I’ve got more than 30 years’ experience in trees.”
Nayland works year-round as a grower and landscaper specializing in shrubs and trees suited to eastern North Carolina, including azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, blueberries, boxwoods, hollies and cold-hardy hibiscus.
Starting the Friday after Thanksgiving, however, repeat customers from as far away as Virginia come to his farm to find Christmas trees, and many take time to enjoy walking on trails through Nayland’s woods and around his lake. “Some families bring a picnic,” he says. “I encourage people to stay as long as they want.”
Chilly days really bring out the tree shoppers. “In 2010 when we had snow one week, people just went crazy,” Nayland said.
After years of pruning and nurturing his crop, Nayland finds it “very rewarding” to see customers connect with their chosen trees. “It’s worth all the work.”
Tree varieties available for choose-and-cut include white pine, Scotch pine, Norway spruce, Leyland cypress, Arizona Cypress ‘Blue Ice,’ and a few firs.
“Our topography will not allow us to grow most firs. I’ve experimented with growing a few kinds; I had some successes but mostly failures,” says Naylor, who has a degree in horticulture.
His most popular species of Christmas tree is white pine, which does not trigger allergic reactions as firs do in some individuals. “I have a lot of repeat customers for white pine,” he says.
In addition to field-grown choose-and-cut trees, several varieties are available in containers. These can be transplanted into the user’s yard after the holiday. A tree up to four feet tall, in a five or ten-gallon container, is “the best size to transplant,” says Nayland.
Blue spruce is popular with Northerners living in the Raleigh area, in spite of its extremely sharp needles. Norway spruce is “less prickly than blue spruce, with a deeper green color and shorter needles.”
Although indigenous to a more arid climate, Arizona Cypress ‘Blue Ice’ has grown well on Nayland’s farm and is very popular, with its “overwhelmingly wonderful fragrance and gorgeous blue tint.”
For those who want Fraser firs, Nayland brings in pre-cut trees that have been cut only 48 hours at the time he gets them. “Then I make fresh cuts and set them in the lake until it’s time to display them,” he says. “I keep them in water until they sell. I have customers who won’t get their cut trees anywhere else.”
Northlake hours are Monday through Friday, 1 to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sunday 1:30 to 5:30. Prices are $6 per foot of height for pines and cypress, $8 per foot for spruce and fir. Pre-cut Fraser firs are tagged with prices.
Last year was a record-breaking year for Nayland and for sellers of natural trees across the United States. “I saw lots of first-time real tree buyers. There may be shortages this year, especially of taller trees and Fraser firs.”
Perhaps that fact will encourage tree-shoppers to think outside of the box and try a tree of the types that eastern North Carolinians of earlier generations enjoyed: a little wilder, a little less standardized and a lot fresher.
Whatever variety of choose-and-cut Christmas tree your family chooses, you will feel a personal connection with it that you won’t forget. Homemade gingerbread ornaments and popcorn strings are optional.
Northlake Christmas Trees and Nursery
7326 Meadowbrook Rd., Benson
B&D Christmas Trees
1206 Elliot Farm Rd., Fayetteville
Phone: (910) 482-4404
Also on facebook
Eastern N.C. Christmas Tree Growers Association