Dear Miss Floribunda,
December is a time when my thoughts go back to childhood Christmases. My family always brought in and decorated a pine tree, a live one with burlap-wrapped roots. My mother, who was born on Christmas Day, loved them. Unfortunately, she was also allergic to the cut ones that shed their needles. A live tree gave her the fragrance she wanted without the sneezes.
Then after Christmas, I would help my father dig a big hole and plant the tree outside. In time, our big yard in the suburbs of Pittsburgh was lined with pine trees that blocked out the street and made a wall of green all year round.
Now that my family and I have a house in Hyattsville, I’m thinking of restarting my family’s tradition of having a live tree each year and then planting it outside. There are lots of places right now that sell cut spruces, firs, balsams and even cedars at Christmas, but I haven’t seen any that sell live pines.
Spruces smell good, too, but they don’t bring back the same memories. There is just something about the shape of a majestic pine tree and the sound the wind makes in its boughs that makes me want to recreate the pine windbreak of my memories. Do you know where I can find a live pine Christmas tree to start this out?
Nostalgic on Nicholson Street
While I certainly sympathize with your yen to recapture the yules of yesteryear, I learned that finding a suitable pine tree is indeed a formidable quest.
My friend Noël Conifer and I roamed the same garden centers, hardware and big box stores you undoubtedly checked, but with no success. We remained unpersuaded that a Norfollk pine houseplant could survive outside in our climate.
We next contacted Boy Scout troops and church groups, but again found no veritable pine needles in those virtual hay stacks. Patuxent Nursery in Bowie does not have pines such as you describe, suitable for making a windbreak or wall of green. It carries a number of dwarf varieties; the Blue Angel, which is very slow growing; and the Angel Walls white pine, which is a weeping pine.
We decided to visit more far-flung tree farms and nurseries, going as far as Sykesville in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia. (Ironically, Pine Valley Farms carries only fir trees.) Merrifield Gardens in Falls Church, Va., doesn’t carry the Scotch pine so popular for Christmas trees but does have on site some nice fast-growing native white pines that are 8-feet tall in the pot and 6-feet tall when planted. The lowest price would be $298.
When we brazenly asked where we might find a better price, Betty’s Azalea Ranch in Fairfax, Va., was recommended. The knowledgeable person we spoke with there did cite lower prices, but these were for the dwarf Cortland rose pine and the very slow-growing Bergman and Glauca Brevifolia Japanese varieties. If you can afford it, you could buy one sizable native white pine for this year, and then order younger, less expensive trees online and start your own nursery for yuletides to come.
Although I also cherish lovely memories related to pines — notably summers in Maine that a whiff of pine fragrance never fails to evoke — I’d like to warn those with smaller yards that white pines can grow up to 80 feet tall and have a spread of 40 feet. What’s worse, they are shallow rooted. I personally know of two occasions when magnificent old pine trees have fallen on houses during wind storms, and Noël has witnessed other incidents as severe.
While pine branches make wonderful silky-smooth swags with which to decorate stair rails and doorways, actual pine trees — with their widely spaced branches — look rather sparse compared to those of a spruce or fir. Also, ornaments tend to slip off their somewhat laxer branches, and it takes more effort to attach them.
Please come to a brief meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) at 10 a.m. on Dec. 17 at Laurie Singer’s studio and gazebo at 3918 Queensbury Road. A potluck party and the Antiques and Crafts Holiday Boutique, in which our hostess and three other HHS members will participate, will follow. And who knows? You might find pine-scented candles, table arrangements or sachets for sale.