Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES -- For some holiday enthusiasts, the thought of an artificial Christmas tree just won't do. They prefer the look, feel and smell of a fresh-cut tree. Luckily, New Mexico is home to several native conifers that make excellent Christmas trees, said a forest entomologist with New Mexico State University.
"For a natural Christmas tree, you could go to the store and buy a fir tree for Oregon or a Scots pine from Michigan or Indiana," said Bob Cain, with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "But why do that when there are several species in New Mexico's forests that make excellent Christmas trees."
Pinon is one of the more popular, abundant native species in the state. "Pinons have many desirable Christmas tree attributes, with fairly short needles and nice, full crowns," Cain said. "As you trees, pinons have excellent Christmas-tree shapes. As the trees mature, they become more rounded."
Contrary to what some people believe, there are plenty of pinons available in the state for Christmas tree harvesting. "Many people don't like to cut pinon trees because they think there aren't enough of them. But in New Mexico, pinons are probably in denser stands now than ever before because of changes in land-use patterns and fire frequency," he said.
For more traditional-looking Christmas trees, Cain recommends selecting higher elevation conifers like white pine, white fir and Rocky Mountain Douglas fir.
"The white pine is a popular Christmas tree in many eastern states, but is not used that much in the West," he said. White pines have gray bark, blue-green foliage and long, soft needles. The branches are flexible, so heavy bulbs and ornaments may cause the limbs to droop.
"White pine cones also make good Christmas ornaments," Cains said. "They're heavy cones with a dark woody color. They're the largest of our native pine cones, so they often are used in Christmas arts and crafts."
White firs have soft, blue-green foliage and an open branching pattern. Native-grown white firs will be less dense than plantation-grown Christmas trees, he said. This openness makes displaying ornaments easier.
Rocky Mountain Douglas firs have darker green foliage and shorter needles that remain attached to the tree very well, he said.
Spruce and corkbark firs grow at New Mexico's highest elevations. "Spruce is one of the more popular Christmas trees because of its shape and color," Cain said. "However, spruce trees do tend to lose their needles faster than other native species."
Corkbark firs look very much like white firs, but will have more dense foliage because they grow more slowly at higher elevations. Corkbark firs also have flat needles and a nice blue-green color.
For New Mexicans wanting to cut their own trees, Cain recommends contacting the local district office of the U.S. Forest Service to inquire about designated tree-harvesting areas. "Many of the forest service districts have designated areas and can offer you a permit to cut a tree in that area."
Individuals cutting trees on private land should ask the landowner for a bill for sale or other proof of ownership. "In New Mexico, it's illegal to transport woody products that have been harvested illegally," Cain said. "So, it's important to carry some sort of proof of ownership."
Standard proof-of-ownership forms are available at U.S. Forest Service district offices, he said.
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