Step out of the box and choose an unusual conifer for a live Christmas tree

gardening image
You can go the usual route with a cut Christmas tree or get a potted one to bring inside year after year. Photo by Lynn Ketchum
Last Updated: 
December 5, 2014

CORVALLIS, Ore. – We buy live Christmas trees with the best of intentions, promising ourselves to plant them in the garden as soon as the holidays are over. But resolve has a way of fading like resolutions after January.

Moved outside without the care they need, the beautiful, and not inexpensive, trees meant to go in the ground in winter, languish, fade to brown and eventually die. One alternative is to buy plants meant to stay in pots, said Al Shay, a horticulture instructor at Oregon State University.

“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “You give up big trees for smaller, slower-growing plants that you can bring in year after year. But what’s small? Is four feet too small? Three feet? It’s relative.”

When shopping for a live tree, Shay recommends doing your homework before buying. Think about whether you want to keep it in a container forever or eventually plant it. If the tree is meant to go in the ground, make sure the mature size fits the location where it will grow.

Shay recommends the following half dozen conifers that qualify for permanent, or at least semi-permanent, placement in a pot.

‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana): A typical Christmas tree-shaped fir, but with needles that curve around the stem showing off snowy white undersides that give it a naturally flocked appearance. It will grow six to 12 inches a year, topping out at about 10 feet in 10 years. It’s winter-hardy to minus 15 degrees.

Slender hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’): Rich, dark needles accentuate this slow-growing beauty that takes little space in the garden because of its slender silhouette. Graceful, fan-shaped branches radiate in horizontal whorls around the trunk. It eventually grows to 20 feet, but at a leisurely rate of six inches annually. Unlike most conifers, ‘Gracilis’ will be happy in partial shade. Expect a drought-tolerant plant once it gets established that is hardy to minus 25.

‘Black Dragon’ Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica): An open-branched form defines this dark-needled conifer when young, but it matures to a dense, 6-foot tree that fits easily into a small garden. In spring, new foliage emerges light green for a pop in the landscape and deepens to a very dark green as the year passes. It’s hardy to minus 5.

‘Skylands’ yellow Oriental spruce (Picea orientalis): Unhurried in its growth, this bright yellow spruce is a quirky selection for the free spirited. The shape is reminiscent of a Christmas tree, but more narrow than conical. An excellent choice for tight spaces, ‘Skylands’ grows to only 10 feet in 10 years, though will top out at 35 feet after many decades. In hotter areas give it some afternoon shade to keep it happy. It’s hardy to minus 15.

‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine (Pinus flexilis): A pine with long, soft needles with a silver color. The habit is upright and pyramid-shaped, which contributes to its name. Snow and ice aren’t a match for this limber pine, so it’s a great choice for colder Oregon areas. Also tolerates dry situations. It gets to about 20 feet, but slowly and is hardy to minus 25.

Umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata): This conical conifer creeps along, gaining six inches a year until it reaches about 40 feet. Thick, stiff needles swirl around the stems like the ribs of an umbrella, thus the name. It is hardy to minus 5.

Shay offers a number of tips for keeping your tree healthy.

  • Move the tree into a garage or other sheltered, dry place for a couple of days before taking it into the house. Do the same when you move it back outdoors. Trees need time to acclimate to sudden temperature changes.
  • Place trees in a well-lighted room that isn't too hot. Keep away from heat sources, such as furnace vents, fireplaces and wood stoves.
  • Living trees shouldn't stay indoors much longer than a week.
  • Use only twinkle or LED lights on the tree. Others types can cause excessive drying.
  • Water sufficiently to keep roots from drying out, but don't let the tree rest in standing water. Putting ice on top of the soil is a good option.
  • Living trees should be in containers with soil around the root ball. Be sure to protect the floor or carpet on which you place the tree.
  • After it goes outside, remember to water the tree if it's been dry for a while or you've placed it under the eaves where it doesn't get rainwater.

Trees in pots outside need to be watered more regularly than trees in the ground, according to Shay. How much they should be watered depends on the type of soil and size of pot. In hot weather, water medium-size pots with well-drained soil every two to three days.

After several years, the tree may need to be lifted and root pruned, or moved to a larger pot.

Wind can dry out trees quickly, so consider some protection from strong wind, water more regularly and provide some tethering.

Don't over fertilize, Shay says. Use a balanced formulation such as 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 at about half of the manufacturer's recommended volume and frequency.

Author: Kym Pokorny
Source: Al Shay, 541-737-2503, al.shay@oregonstate.edu