Many different kinds of tree have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years. Pagans used their branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as it reminded them of the spring to come. Christians use them as a sign of everlasting life with god. Romans used Fir trees as a decoration for their temples at the festival of Saturnalia.
No one knows exactly when trees were first used for Christmas but it is assumed to be about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe. The trees most often used were Fir, Cherry and Hawthorn, with the latter two being put into pots and brought inside in the hope that they would flower in time for Christmas. In the present day, our favourite Christmas tree choices in Europe are pines, firs and spruces.
Peculiarly, Fir trees used as early Christmas trees appear to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains. Can you imagine how high your ceiling would have to be to hang up the Norway Spruce that Norway gifts to the UK every year?!
A pine is any conifer in the genus Pinus,. There are currently 126 recognised pine species in the genus, which is divided into three subgenera: The yellow/ hard pine group, the foxtail/ pinyon group and the white/ soft pine group.
Pine trees are evergreen, coniferous resinous trees and through their use as Christmas trees their resin has become a familiar scent associated with the festive season.
In Europe our favourite pines to use for Christmas are Scots pine, Stone pine and Swiss pine.
A fir is any conifer in the genus Abies, there are currently 48 recognised species in this genus and they are generally associated with mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere.
Fir trees are a popular choice for Christmas as they keep their needles better than the traditional spruce, athough they are also more expensive to grow.
In Europe our favourite firs to use for Christmas are Silver fir, Nordmann fir and Noble fir.
A spruce is any conifer in the genus Picea and there are currently 35 recognised species in this genus and they are found in the northern temperate and boreal regions of the earth.
Spruce trees are often used as Christmas trees with the Norway spruce considered to be the traditional Christmas tree of Europe.
The city of Oslo in Norway has gifted a 50-60 year old Norway spruce to Britain every year since 1947. The tree is displayed in Trafalgar Square and is a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the second world war.
How do you tell apart your Pines, Spruces and Firs?
Pinus is easy to distinguish from Abies and Picea as it has needle-like leaves in clusters of 2, 3 or 5 and is quite spiky!
Abies and Picea on the other hand, both have leaves arranged singly along the twig, rather than in clusters.
Rather unhelpfully Abies and Picea, whilst easily separated from Pinus, are to the untrained eye difficult to distinguish from each other.
Strangely, the trick to separating them is to stroke their twigs! The key difference being that the twigs of Picea have pegs poking out, whereas the twigs of Abies are smooth.
Go and stroke your Christmas tree!
Remember that it is still possible to undertake a range of ecology surveys during the winter months. Click here to find out more or check out our survey calendar to see when you can start planning your surveys for next year.
Or why not attend one of our ecology courses?