With Thanksgiving festivities and Black Friday mayhem safely in the rear-view mirror, millions of Southern Californians are making their annual journeys to parking lots and hastily re-purposed pumpkin patches to pick Christmas trees.
Bringing trees indoors and decorating them is an odd tradition that appears to have begun in Germany around the time of the Protestant Reformation. One popular story holds that it began when Martin Luther was struck by the beauty of starlight shining through a forest and tried to recreate the effect at home with candles and an evergreen tree. Whatever the true origins of the custom, it’s especially unusual in sunny Los Angeles, where pine and fir trees are rather difficult to come by—and where a proper snow hasn’t fallen in decades.
So where do all those trees come from? While there are a few places in Southern California where you’ll find trees growing on-site, the vast majority are unsurprisingly imported from outside the region.
Nearly half of all PNW trees are sold in California
Washington and Oregon supply the vast majority of California’s Christmas trees, with 45 percent of all harvested trees in the Pacific Northwest eventually making their way to the Golden State, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association (another 16 percent end up in Mexico).
Plenty of states rely on imported trees
It’s not just California that relies heavily on trees grown elsewhere. Of the 16 million trees harvested in the U.S. in 2012, more than 75 percent were grown in just two states: Oregon and North Carolina. As for artificial trees? About 80 percent come from China.
Some of the most sought-after trees grow in the Sierra Nevada mountains
California isn’t completely devoid of in-state Christmas tree growers. In fact, certain types of tree can be hard to find elsewhere. The hardy silvertip tree, for instance, is most commonly sourced from high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Popular for its sturdy shape—perfect for supporting an excess of lights and ornaments—the silvertip is also one of the most difficult trees to harvest.
The trees only grow at high elevations and usually must be harvested after the trees go into a wintertime period of dormancy, but before harsh winter weather prevents growers from transporting them to lower altitudes.
Silvertips also grow at a much slower pace than other types of fir trees. According to Christmas tree wholesaler Bishop and Matthews, the trees normally take about 25 years to reach a height of eight feet, though modern growing techniques have reduced that timeline by about a decade.
Huge mall trees come from Mt. Shasta
Some of the giant trees found at shopping malls throughout Southern California are actually grown in-state. Orange County-based company Victor's Custom Christmas Trees specializes in the delivery and setup of such mega-trees, including those standing tall at the Grove and Americana at Brand. Many of the company’s trees are harvested in the area around Mount Shasta in Northern California.
Workers transport the fir trees, which are generally around 100 feet tall, to malls as far away as Arizona and Colorado on the back of flatbed trucks before eventually mounting and decorating them (usually with the help of a crane) at their final destinations.
Christmas trees look the way they do because they’re grown that way
When you close your eyes and imagine a Christmas tree, you probably think of an evergreen with branches spreading out wide toward the base and shortening near the top, forming a neat conical shape. But trees don’t necessarily grow that way if left to their own devices.
Christmas tree growers continuously “culture” trees as they grow, trimming side branches and pruning to ensure branches grow in thick and the trees develop that signature Christmas tree shape.
Getting a fresh-cut tree makes a difference
It’s always a shame when, weeks before Christmas, a tree starts raining needles all over the living room floor. That usually happens when trees are cut long before a buyer purchases them.
Tina Callas, who owns Tina’s Trees and has been one of the San Fernando Valley’s largest tree providers for 40 years, tells Curbed she orders a new batch of trees every three or four days to make sure they stay fresh. “The trees we’ll sell next week are still in the ground,” she says.
Shawn Wilk, owner of Shawn’s Christmas Trees in Palms, says buyers should pull on the branches of a tree before purchasing to make sure needles aren’t coming off. He also suggests reaching inside the branches to the trunk to make sure it’s not dry.
“That’s a pretty good start,” he says.
For some trees, there’s life after Christmas
Founded in 2008, the Living Christmas Company delivers live trees to homes across Southern California each holiday season. Rather than buying a tree that’s already been cut down, customers rent potted trees that will eventually be replanted after the ornaments come off.