As in every other sphere of life, fashions come and go in Christmas trees. Years ago, spruces dominated. Then pines became popular. Now firs are the most sought after Christmas tree, especially Nordmann Fir and Noble Fir.
The most loved feature of any tree is the combination of its lovely Christmassy smell and the feel of its foliage. Artificial trees excel in having a perfectly symmetrical shape but the one thing they cannot achieve is the fragrance of conifers when the foliage is brushed.
Conifers are literally the cone-carriers. Apart from a few shrubs, they are nearly all trees and they all bear seeds on cones. Most are also evergreen.
Their characteristic Christmas tree outline of being shaped like a cone with a broad round base, a narrow pointed top and branches that droop slightly downwards is an adaptation that has evolved to shed snow evidencing that they are species of cool climates with harsh winters.
The Norway Spruce is, or was, the traditional Christmas tree. Like all spruces its leaves are hard, sharp needles and each is borne on a little peg. These pegs are unique to spruces; when the needles are shed the pegs remain making the branches feel rough to the touch.
Though hugely important as a forestry tree in Ireland the Norway Spruce has fallen out of favour as a Christmas tree because of its habit of shedding its needles. Other downsides include the sharpness of its needles and the tendency of the branches to droop under the weight of lights and baubles.
While spruces bear single, short, hard needles all pines bear longer and softer needles in bundles. Bundles can be made up of two, three, five or eight needles. Lodgepole Pine, a two-needle species, is a popular Christmas tree because of its neat shape.
Firs are the upmarket Christmas trees with their slim shapes, dense foliage, attractive blue-green needles that do not shed and buds that are not coated with sticky resin.
Noble Fir, one of the American silver firs, is a very popular tree with a fine shape, greyish leaves and a nice, if somewhat oniony, fragrance from its dense foliage.
Nordmann Fir, another silver fir but a European one this time, appears to be the number one choice of Christmas tree this year. It has all the good qualities of other species, a fruity aroma and the added bonus of strong branches to carry the heaviest of seasonal decorations.