'Gourmet' Trees Attract New Customers

Looking for a tree to match your designer tastes? How about a Korean fir or a Nikko or a Fralsam?

If those breeds don't ring a bell, it's because they belong to a niche market of Christmas tree species that some farmers are developing to try and entice more people to choose real over artificial. It's one way tree sellers hope to beat back a U.S. trend toward choosing fake trees during the holidays.

"The tree business is down, and the artificial tree has had an impact," explained Ron Hudler, owner of Hudler Carolina Tree Farm in North Carolina and a marketing officer of the National Christmas Tree Association. "So there are a lot of people fooling around with new and exotic species."

Fake Trees Make a Comeback

Times have changed since the 1970s and '80s when most people who celebrated Christmas set up some species of pine tree in their homes come December. Artificial trees have since improved in quality and selection, with some coming complete with LED lights and themed decorations. Sales of artificial trees have risen 31 percent since 2001 and in the past few years, about 70 percent of American homes with trees had fake Christmas trees on display.

At the same time, real trees marketed for Christmas have changed too. Traditional pines and balsams are now considered somewhat bottom rung and have been replaced by leaders such as the Douglas Fir, the Noble Fir (like the one now up at the White House) from Oregon and Washington, and the Fraser Fir from the Carolinas.

Brian Ostlund of the Pacific Northwest Tree Association explains there has been a shift in the production of real trees. Smaller tree farms in the Northwest and mid-regions of the country have been dwindling in number while tree farms on the northern West Coast and in the Carolinas are producing most of the country's supply.

"We see production dropping in other areas," he said.

To survive, smaller tree farms across the country are working on developing unusual new breeds to attract customers. Since it takes at least eight years to develop a Christmas tree for sale, these breeds remain somewhat experimental and their cultivators commonly call them "exotic," "gourmet" or "premium" trees.

"The exotics cost more since the expense of acquiring and producing them is greater," said Cathy Genovese, co-owner of the Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Brandon Township, Mich.

The Nikko, Genovese explains, is a slightly yellowish tree with pointed needles. The Korean fir hails from South Korea and is soft and dark green with white undertones. Then there are hybrids like the Fralsam -- a mix of the Fraser and balsam trees that is unusually full and aromatic.

Some of the exotic trees on the Genovese farm go for as much as $110, while a traditional pine costs between $39 and $50. Despite the steeper price, Genovese says they never have trouble selling the more expensive ones.

"We're already out," Genovese said. "They're always the first to go."

'Cadillac' of Southern Christmas Trees

Of course, the variety of gourmet trees that farms cultivate depends on the local climate. In the South, tree farmers have found success with a cross between the Monterey cypress and Alaska Cedar -- the Leyland Cypress. The variety has been around for decades but has only recently become more popular among shoppers.

"They're called the Cadillac of trees around here," said Stan Revis, owner of The Christmas Forest, a tree farm in Pensacola, Fla. "They're full, thick and dark green. Think of the perfect Christmas tree in your mind, and it's the Leyland Cypress."

Revis has so much faith in the Leyland Cypress that it's the only variety he grows. He has grown some 4,000 of the trees over the past five years and was finally ready to start selling some trees this season. Then his farm was hit hard by Hurricane Ivan and nearly all of the cypresses were blown to a slant. So Revis is offering the deluxe trees at 50 percent -- about $25 each rather than $50.

"They lean only when they're in the ground," he said. "When you cut them, they can stand upright. It's a good deal."

For bigger tree producers, like Joe Sharp of Yule Tree Farms in Oregon, one approach to draw discerning customers is to pick the best of the crop, mark up their price and offer them as "premium" trees.

"We've come up with the brand name, 'noble grand vintage.' These trees have ideal fullness, shape and color. It's the way they've been handled," said Sharp. "It's the perfect beautiful tree. There are no flaws."

How much for a flawless, Noble Fir tree? Depending on the size, $100 or more.

The National Christmas Tree Association is projecting this to be a better year for real tree sales -- both standard stands and exotic. A poll conducted at the end of November by the association found that U.S. consumers will buy 24 million to 24.5 million real Christmas trees this season, compared with 23.4 million bought last year.

Hudler chalks up part of that projected success to what he says are changed attitudes toward buying real trees.

"People are starting to understand that these trees are not pillaged out of the forest, they're grown as a commodity," he said. "Plus, they're easily recycled. Getting that message across certainly helps."