What makes the Scots Pine a good Christmas Tree?

Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, with cone and needles. © Karen Andrews.

While researching botanical subjects for this year’s Advent Botany blog calendar, I was astonished to discover that the Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, is the most commonly used Christmas tree in the USA. The Scots Pine does not even feature in the British Christmas Tree Grower’s Association list of the 8 most popular Christmas trees in the UK. The Scots Pine is native to the UK, but it is not native to the US. So, while we use imported and naturalised trees as Christmas trees, the Americans prefer to farm our native tree. How bizarre Christmas customs can sometimes be.

What makes a good Christmas tree?

Americans prize the Scots Pine for many of the characteristics that we seek in a good Christmas tree. They appreciate its excellent survival rate. The Scots Pine can be trusted to remain fresh throughout the festive season. It boasts excellent needle retention. The needles are soft by comparison with other prickly conifers. Its stiff branches are considered great for hanging decorations without bending under their weight. The dark green foliage sets Christmas ornaments off well. Pine scent perfumes the room.

Scottish Christmas Tree

A simple Google search reveals that the Scots Pine is used as a Christmas tree in Scotland. I suppose that we tend to think of full-sized Scots Pines. Young trees of 6-7 years are much closer to the height and prized conical shape desired in Christmas trees. The Scots both farm Christmas trees and select surplus young trees from Pine forests to create room for others to thrive. Whether wild or farmed, the Scots Pine can be of huge ecological benefit supporting a lot of wildlife.

Out of Favour

The Scots Pine is the most widely distributed Pine species in the world. The map below shows how few Scots Pines remain of the feted Caledonian Forest. Just 77 remnants remain. The Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora notes that the Scots Pine is out of favour as a forestry tree. Pest and diseases can be a major problem in plantations.

Distribution map of Pinus sylvestris s.l. (Scots pine) in Europe.
Source: Giovanni Caudullo, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Legend: 
     Green: Native range and isolated population.
Yellow: Introduced and naturalized area and isolated population.

Scottish Subspecies

The Scots Pine has huge genetic diversity. There is much debate about how many subspecies should be recognised. Stace notes that the native trees retain their pyramidal shape until late in life and have short leaves and cones. This Scottish subspecies is often distinguished as Pinus sylvestris ssp. scotica.

Pine Cones down South

Pine cone Christmas tree © Karen Andrews.

The tree itself may not travel far in the UK as a Christmas tree, but Pinus sylvestris is not entirely neglected down south. Pine cones make popular Christmas decorations. They adorn our wreaths and feature in winter floral bouquets on sticks. They are regularly sprayed gold, silver or covered in artificial snow. I even found a Christmas tree made out of pine cones this year (see right).

NB: It is incorrect to refer to the Scots Pine as the Scotch Pine. Don’t confuse the conifer with the famous Scottish spirit this Christmas.

© Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

Photos © Karen Andrews. Illustration source stated where used.

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