Best Living Christmas Trees

Meredith Gaines — Nov 22, 2022

It's no secret that we’re big fans of trees, and that’s why we believe the holiday season calls for living Christmas trees! When shopping for the perfect tree, you’ll likely look for a particular shape and height, but have you ever noticed that there's so many different types of Christmas trees to choose from?

Not all Christmas trees are the same, so here’s a rundown of some of the most popular holiday evergreens and how to tell them apart. Keep reading to understand the difference between a fir and a pine and how to choose the perfect kind of tree to bring into your home this winter. 

Spruces

Meet the Spruce family or Picea. Spruces are very closely related to pines but not the same, so think of them like a cousin to your traditional pine tree. Spruces are typically large, reaching anywhere from 60-100+ feet tall, and all of them will feature that traditional pyramidal shape. While the specific varieties of spruces may vary in height, width and color, all of them will have the following shared characteristics. 

Identification

The best way to tell a spruce from other trees is by its needles. Look closely at the needles of the spruce and you’ll find individually attached needles with a woody base (shown below). The needles will also have edges (like a square) when rolled between your fingers. 

woody base

Older trees will produce cones, and on older, internal branches, the tree will appear bumpy from the woody base being left behind after older needles fall off. 

Where They Grow Best

Spruces are made for the cold, naturally growing in places like Sweden and Finland. In the US, you’ll have luck growing spruces in growing zones 2-7. Depending on the variety of spruce you select, expect a moderate to fast growth rate and extreme cold tolerance of down to -40℉!

Good Things to Know

Spruces are fragile when first planted, so they’ll need extra care during the first two years to establish in your yard. This will look like a frost blanket, watering on a schedule and staking your tree. However, after they’re established, they’re very durable and long lasting. 

As your spruce trees grow, they’ll keep their needles during the winter. Although, some of the internal, old needles will occasionally fall off. This is no reason to worry and your tree should never become completely bare. 

spruce tree

Firs

Fir trees are another relative in the evergreen family tree but closer to cedars than to pines. Many beloved Christmas tree varieties come from the fir family. There are over 50 varieties of firs out there to choose from, but they share the following commonalities. 

Identification

A fir tree will have individually attached needles with no woody base and are noticeably flat. The needles are also considered softer and less stiff, and the lack of woody base at the needles makes the older branches smooth rather than rough like on a spruce. The cones are also an easy way to decipher a fir–they’ll grow straight upwards on the branches. 

fir tree

Where They Grow Best

Firs can be found in a wide range of areas, from zone 3 all the way to zone 9. They’re native to large parts of North America, Central American and Europe, often in the mountains. 

You need a decent amount of soil moisture to keep them happy, but they will not tolerate sitting in excessive moisture since they can be prone to root rot.

Good Things to Know

Don’t trust common names when it comes to fir trees. Popular trees like the Douglas Fir and Hemlock Fir aren't firs at all! While they may resemble one, they don’t have all the same characteristics of a true fir tree. 

Firs are known for their beauty but not their speed. If you’re looking for speed, go with a cedar. However, what you sacrifice in speed you make up for in longevity with most firs living well beyond 100 years!

Pines

Pine trees are sometimes the catch-all term for firs and spruces or any pyramidal evergreen tree. But, they’re actually their own group. The pines are a very large family of around 180+ trees. 

Identification

If you examine a pine tree’s branches, you should see needles attached in bundles of more than one that are round and either straight or curled (shown below). An easy way to tell is to take a single needle and roll it in your fingers–this way you can easily feel the edges or lack of edges. The length of needles varies and so does the needle's straightness. Some needles will be straight, while others appear slightly curly. 

twisted pine needles

Pine trees will produce cones of varying shapes and sizes with two kinds of cones per tree. Pine trees will have small and inconspicuous male cones that release the pollen and the more showy female cones that are the ones you typically see in decor this time of year. 

Where They Grow Best

Pines have a wide growing range from zone 5 in the north to zone 11 in the south. They also grow in a variety of climates including the mountains, rainforests and semi-arid deserts. Remember, this is a range for all pines and not the specific varieties. To best find one that fits your needs, research different varieties

Pines need around 6-8 hours of sunlight per day and do best with a sandy or more alkaline soil. They’ll grow at a moderate rate of around 1-3 feet per year once established in your yard, so if you’re planting in-ground, plan ahead when finding a location.

pine tree

Good Things to Know 

Pines have very sticky sap, so try not to cut any branches if you don't need to, as you’ll likely have a mess on your hands. 

Pines have a very upright growth pattern (meaning they grow straight up and down), so you wont need to worry too much about curves and bends when picking a pine. 

Cedars

Cedars may not look like they belong next to the pine family, but they are a distant relative that can make an especially stunning, fast-growing tree. If you live in a warmer climate, you might have good luck with a cedar this year!

Identification

Cedars can easily be distinguished from pines, spruces or firs by their scale-like leaves. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny overlapping sections that form a fanned out leaf structure. This characteristic gives cedars a softer and more fluffy appearance when compared to traditional pine trees.  

When cedar leaves are crushed, the oils exposed give off a very aromatic smell that’s so reminiscent of the holidays!

cedar tree

Where They Grow Best

Cedars are fast growers if you give them what they need. They’re commonly found growing in areas with well-draining but consistently moist soils and full sun. 

They have a wide distribution, mainly growing in the mediterranean areas and Himalayas, and they do best in zones 2-9. 

Good Things to Know

The branches on cedars are quite flexible, especially on new growth, so plan accordingly when hanging ornaments and expect some drooping with extra weight. 

Cedars grow fast for the tree world, putting on multiple feet per year once established. Due to their rapid growth rate, they do have a shorter lifespan. However, don't be too concerned, as a shorter lifespan in the tree world is still 100-150 years. 

Popular Varieties 

Now that you have an idea of what each kind of tree is, here are some of our favorite picks for this year’s celebrations!

Whether you opt for a living Christmas tree this year or a traditional cut christmas tree, know your options so you can pick the best one for your home! There’s a tree to fit every space, whether you have lots of room to fill or it’s a tight squeeze. Shop our entire Christmas trees collection to find this year’s fit! 

Meredith Gaines

Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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