CLEMSON — Despite being too dry, too wet or damaged by winds, South Carolina’s Christmas tree farms have weathered the storm and are expecting another strong showing in 2016.
Though some trees have been stressed by severe drought in most areas of the state — or by standing water and wind damage along the coast — there are still more than enough healthy trees to go around for anyone looking to jump-start their Christmas spirit.
“In the Upstate and other dry areas of the state, we’ve seen some damage due to drought stress,” said Clemson University senior Extension agent Mark Arena. “But a lot of this affects just single branches on mature trees that are easy to prune. So, overall, this year’s crop has given South Carolina’s Christmas tree industry plenty of positive momentum on the eve of the holiday season.”
The national Christmas Tree Promotion Board, in collaboration with the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association (SCCTA), has ramped up its advertising and social media. This year’s new slogan is “It’s Christmas. Keep it real.” The Christmas Tree Association helps buyers find farms nearest to where they live, while also providing details on varieties and care.
“We want to encourage more people to buy real trees from South Carolina farms,” president Lauren Booth said. “Though last year was a very strong year for us, we’re expecting 2016 to be even better.”
In 2015, fresh-cut tree sales totaled approximately 8,500 in South Carolina — an increase of 7 percent from 2014 — with an estimated value of about $500,000. South Carolina tree farmers also supplement their income by selling imported Fraser firs, the most popular Christmas tree nationwide. Fraser firs are not grown in South Carolina because they only thrive at higher altitudes with cool summer weather.
But a half dozen or more enchanting Christmas tree varieties grow well in South Carolina, each of which offers its own appeal:
BLUE ICE — A variety of the Arizona Cypress that has soft, dense, blue-green foliage with an outstanding aroma. “This is one of the newer varieties that is known for its beautiful coloration and fragrance,” Arena said during a recent visit to Mystic Christmas Tree Farm, a family-run operation that has been in business in Greenville since 1983. “I think it’s a wonderful tree with strong branches that can be a real showpiece in your home.”
CAROLINA SAPPHIRE — Like Blue Ice, the Carolina Sapphire is also a variety of the Arizona Cypress. “This is a very nice tree that is slightly different than Blue Ice in appearance but that also has amazing coloration and fragrance,” Arena said. “The blue-green foliage provides an enticing contrast to your decorations. Just make sure to water Blue Ice and Carolina Sapphires regularly because they have a tendency to dry out relatively quickly if not properly maintained.”
LEYLAND CYPRESS — A beautiful tree with soft foliage that is grown from cuttings and therefore does not produce pollen, enabling many asthma sufferers to enjoy a real tree in their home. “The Leyland Cypress is historically one of the most popular Christmas trees in South Carolina,” Arena said. “If you want that traditional green look and the nice pyramidal shape, then the Leyland Cypress fits the definition of a classic Christmas tree. Other benefits of these trees are that they hold their green color throughout the season and there is very little needle-dropping. Durability-wise, this tree is difficult to beat.”
MURRAY CYPRESS — A variety of the Leyland Cypress with many of the same attributes, its foliage has a lemon-mint aroma. “Murray grows slightly faster than the standard Leyland Cypress and it has a sprinkling of aqua-blue,” Arena said. “Adding to its appeal, this tree’s branches and trunks have a pleasing mahogany color. If you’re in the mood to try something new, then the Murray is a good place to start.”
VIRGINIA PINE — Native to the South and one of the most widely grown Christmas trees. It has strong branches, short needles, dense foliage and a pleasant pine scent. “This tree has been around for a long time and is grown throughout South Carolina,” Arena said. “The Virginia Pine and Red Cedars were probably the first two Christmas trees introduced to the market in South Carolina. These trees are quite a bit different than the Carolina Sapphire, the Blue Ice and the Leyland Cypresses in that they more closely resemble the Douglas fir. If you’re looking for a more traditional Christmas tree, this pine variety is something you should consider.”
Arena, who is Clemson Cooperative Extension’s state expert on Christmas and pecan trees, encourages people to purchase Christmas trees at local farms. In addition to being a fun and festive experience, Arena says that it benefits South Carolina’s economy by boosting in-state businesses. “The Christmas tree industry has grown every year since 2009. And going to a local farm and buying a tree is one of the most enjoyable experiences of the holidays.”
In terms of caring for a tree once it’s been purchased, Arena says that keeping the Christmas tree stand constantly filled with water is pretty much all that’s needed. “When you bring home a Christmas tree, the most important thing is to get it in the stand and make sure that it never runs out of water. Keep in mind that the tree will use a lot more water in the beginning than in the end, when its resins will start to seal up the base. Also, there’s really no reason to put any additives in the water. The tree will be fine because it’s only a five- to six-week period, at most.”
Chip Fink, who co-owns Mystic Christmas Tree Farm with his wife, Susan, said that most of his mature trees are in good shape despite the drought. He added that buying naturally grown trees has a double bonus: It adds to Christmas spirit but is also good for the environment.
“We’re expecting another great year,” Fink said. “And keep in mind that every tree on our plantation absorbs carbon from the air and releases oxygen. This is as good a reason as any to purchase naturally grown trees every Christmas. For every tree you buy, we plant another. And the cycle continues.”
This story was written by Jim Melvin, Public Service and Agriculture, Clemson University.