Needle points: What to know about buying a Christmas tree

Do you have your Christmas tree yet?

Trees have been a part of American holiday celebrations since the 1850s. President Franklin Pierce was the first to place a tree in the White House, but it was President Calvin Coolidge who began the tree-lighting tradition in 1923.

As the tradition has grown, so has our attraction to a particular type of tree. Are you a Douglas fir family? Or do you long for the unmistakable scent of a healthy Scotch pine?

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 30 million to 35 million real trees are sold in the United States every year.

I've shopped the grocery store lots, the charity lots and the discount store lots. And I've developed a sense about what I need to know before choosing my tree.

So with the help of some tree experts, it's time to share that information. 'Tis the moment to embrace the fragrant goodness of real trees and say good-bye to the fakes.

The tree that's right for you

Carla Chance at Tree Town Christmas Trees in West Palm Beach says Fraser firs are the most popular trees among South Floridians. "People like them because of the fragrance and the needle retention," she says. "Also because of the soft needles."

Other top-sellers include the noble firs, Scotch pines and spruces. "It's a very personal thing," she says. "You want to see one that just appeals to you."

Chance says that before buying, customers should ask themselves where they plan to place their tree and how they plan to use it. A tree near west-facing windows or in areas that get lots of sun could dry out faster. Ditto for a tree too near an air vent. Give your tree room to breathe, and if it's in a sunny spot, check to make sure it stays hydrated.

Todd Walrath, with Trees for Kids for nine years, specializes in Fraser firs. His downtown Fort Lauderdale lot was the only one I found that keeps the trees in stands with water.

Chance says their trees move so fast, and certain types come in so often, that they do not keep them in stands. Plus, Chance adds, though they keep the trees hydrated, "We have so many, we couldn't stand them all up."

Walrath says his lot has a loyal following that includes the Huizengas.

"Mrs. Huizenga has already been here to get her trees," he says.

And while Tree Town sells a special nourishment solution for $2.95 to help the tree maintain its beauty throughout the season, Walrath says, "All you need is warm tap water."

Inside the Trees for Kids tent, the firs fill the area with an irrepressible holiday scent. And they pass the "needle" test. "Our needles are very soft," Walrath says.

The Fresh Test

To test the freshness of a tree, carefully bend the end of the limbs, then give it a little pull. The limb should feel elastic and bend easily without breaking. And the needles should not come off in your hand.

Jack Lucas, owner of the Tree Town lots and a Christmas tree seller in South Florida for 25 years, says, "A good cut is extremely essential. When that tree is cut on the farm, it sits awhile. The sap will then seal the trunk. We give each tree a fresh cut to keep the sap flowing." A fresh cut ensures that a tree will receive water from its stand and retain its freshness throughout the holiday.

Pros and Cons

Different trees offer unique advantages and challenges:

Fir trees: Typically have soft, velvety needles and wonderful fragrance. But their softness makes them less sturdy. Large, heavy decorations and ornaments may not fare well on fir branches.

Pines, spruce: The Scotch pine is a hearty holiday favorite with sturdy branches. However, it does not have the same velvety texture of a fir. The blue spruce also has wonderful fragrance and is excellent for large, heavy ornaments, but its branches are prickly and should be handled with care.

Which tree is right for you? Check out the heights, origins and fun facts about these Christmas trees

Douglas fir

Source: Oregon

Sizes: 3 to 14 feet

Why we like them: They have thick, beautiful foliage, sweet aroma and long, soft needles.

Fun facts: The needles are dark green or blue green, 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, soft to the touch and radiate out in all directions from the branch. Even though the branches are soft, be sure to wear long sleeves when decorating. Douglases more dense than Fraser firs.

Noble fir

Source: Oregon

Sizes: 3 to 12 feet

Why we like them: They have incredible needle retention, sweet aroma, strong limbs.

Fun facts: In the wild, the trees are tall, beautifully symmetrical and grow to more than 200 feet in height. The bark is smooth with resin blisters when young and changes to brownish-gray plates with age.

Fraser fir

Source: North Carolina

Sizes: 3 to 15 feet

Why we like them: They have excellent needle retention, fine fragrance and dark, rich color.

Fun facts: Fraser fir is a uniformly pyramid-shaped tree, which reaches a maximum height of about 80 feet and a trunk diameter of 1 to 1.5 feet.

Strong branches are turned slightly upward, which gives the tree a compact appearance. You can easily reach between the branches to grasp the trunk. Frasers sometimes come with a full pot-bellied shape.

Scotch pine

Source: Michigan

Sizes: 3 to 9 feet

Why we like them: It has good needle retention and strong limbs.

Fun facts: As a Christmas tree, it is known for its dark green foliage and stiff branches well-suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. Be sure to wear your gardening gloves because when you grab for a pine, it'll grab back.

Balsam fir

Size: 9 to 16 feet

Source: Nova Scotia

Why we like them: It is a traditional Christmas tree, has excellent aroma and is easy to decorate.

Fun facts: Bark is thin, ash-gray and smooth except for numerous blisters on young trees. These blisters contain a sticky, fragrant, liquid resin.

Blue spruce

Source: Michigan

Sizes: 5 to 9 feet

Why we like them: Moderate needle retention, strong limbs and beautiful color. These trees have a rustic quality that might be a perfect fit for someone wanting an old-fashioned Christmas decor.

Fun facts: Blue spruce is becoming more popular as a Christmas tree for its symmetrical form and attractive blue foliage. It has an excellent natural shape and requires little shearing. Many people use blue spruce as a living Christmas tree, to be planted after the holiday season.