Adventurous Christmas Trees

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

Dylan Norfield looks at alternatives to radiata pine.

Abies koreana

Have you ever bought Pinus radiata for your Christmas tree or hauled the plastic replica out of storage and thought, are there any other alternatives out there? The answer is yes. There are lots of living plants that can be grown in pots making them a beautiful Christmas tree that can be transferred to the garden after its festive duties are done, lasting well past New Year.

When choosing a species you want one that will survive indoors for a month with little detrimental effect, or place your tree outside where the choice becomes endless. Many species have their own attributes at Christmas, like attractive leaves, flowers or cones, which only add to the decoration. Whatever the choice, a living tree eliminates the problem of disposing of a dead tree after Christmas and saves you money while also enhancing the garden.

Christmas trees have been around for centuries and are firmly embedded in the Kiwi festive tradition, but why did we start bringing trees into the house at Christmas time? Evergreen conifers have been traditionally used to celebrate winter festivals by pagan and Christian faiths, but it is not clear on when the first Christmas trees were used. The first recorded Christmas tree was in Riga, Latvia in 1510, but the tradition did not gain popularity until the late 19th century across northern Europe. They were mainly erected by the upper classes as others could not afford them. Interestingly, many were not stood upright, but hung upside down from the ceiling by lighting hooks or chandeliers. Artificial trees are also not a new invention as back in the early 20th century trees were made of ostrich feathers or even blocks of wood. Since the plastics revolution this has only increased the popularity of artificial trees. There still remains, though, the love for a real tree. With its unmistakeable pine smell and touchable foliage, a real tree gives an air of Yuletide romanticism. These needs are met by the introduction of Christmas tree farms where supply hopefully meets our insatiable demand.

Growing trees in pots

  • Some trees lend themselves to pot growth better than others. Species with fibrous root, rather than large tap roots, are the best choices.
  • Keep them in fairly small pots, but ensure the plant is not root-bound (leaving no room for expansion), repotting when the roots have filled the existing pot.
  • When potting up (repotting), move up slowly in pot size, as placing straight in a large pot can cause the roots to rot.
  • Use a good free-draining potting mix and feed yearly with a slow-release fertiliser.
  • Do not forget to water well throughout the year as they can still dry out in winter.
Top: Agathis australis
Middle: Araucaria heterophylla
Bottom: Cupressus cashmeriana

Abies koreana

A stunning little fir tree from South Korea. It is very hardy and tough, making a great specimen as a pot plant, meaning it can be used year after year, while still being worthy of display away from the festive season. It is slow growing so will take a little bit of time before becoming the feature Christmas tree, but as it matures it will start to produce purple/blue cones that only add to the display.

Agathis australis

Our kauri tree makes a great Christmas tree with its nicely spaced branches, and it is certainly well worth planting in the garden afterwards. Even though it is the largest tree in New Zealand by volume, it is very slow growing and great in pots while young.

Araucaria heterophylla

Better known as the Norfolk Island pine, its layered branch structure is perfect for the display of those Christmas decorations. It is one of only a few monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria sp.) suitable for this Christmas role due to its softer foliage. It is a relatively fast-growing tree that dislikes long-term pot growth so will need planting in the New Year.

Cupressus cashmeriana

From the Himalayas and Arundel Pradesh, weeping cypress has very attractive, pendulous blue-green foliage. This growth habit gives the appearance of water tumbling down, making it very attractive even before it is decorated. Eventually it forms a large tree, so consider this when planting.

Leptospermum varieties

Our manuka and its cultivars make a great form to display Christmas decorations on. If you choose one of the later-flowering varieties then only a small amount of tinsel is needed as the flowers do the rest.