Residents can harvest a Florida christmas

Billy Duartez and Perla Ledbetter carry the family Christmas tree as Perla’s cousin Stanley Ledbetter, 7, all three of Belleview, leads the way at Nicholas’ Christmas Tree Farm in Summerfield.

Sand pines thrive in abundance in the driest and least fertile soils in Florida’s forests. They’re the soils people would least expect to support the growth of Christmas trees. But sand pines are among a handful of species Florida Christmas tree farmers cultivate, offering a chance to decorate homes with a native Florida tree. Christmas tree farms near The Villages opened for the season to offer fresh-cut trees as many Americans prepare for the December holidays. Despite comprising a minority of the market — about 18% of all Christmas trees displayed in 2018, according to the American Christmas Tree Association — farm-grown trees are valued by some holiday decorators for their authenticity and traditional feel for the season.

Tri-county trees

Fresh-cut Christmas trees are available at three tri-county farms registered with both the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Christmas Tree Association.

The closest one to The Villages, Nicholas’s Christmas Tree Farm in Summerfield, has 6,000 trees on its grounds, ranging from newly planted to 12-foot trees, said owner Ann Murray. She specializes in sand pines and red cedars.

The farm was busy in its opening week at the end of November, which Murray attributed to a shorter holiday season and her farm’s tree prices — $6 per foot — remaining unchanged from last year.

“We’ve had people who have been coming here for 20 years or more, and we’ve been open 27 years,” she said. “I had one family come in three cars to get one tree.”

Her farm will be open until she sells out of trees.

Other Christmas tree farms in the area include Gibbs Christmas Tree Farm in Citra and Santa’s Christmas Tree Forest in Eustis, whose owner, Jodi Utsman, is president of the Florida Christmas Tree Association.

Florida’s Christmas tree Harvest

Florida Christmas tree farmers cultivated about 14,000 Christmas trees in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

That’s far less than the 4.7 million trees that farmers in Oregon — the state with the highest Christmas tree production — harvested that same year.

And some Florida native tree species grown for Christmas trees like the sand pine don’t have the look of traditional Christmas trees, said Shannon Carnevale, the natural resources and conservation agent with the University of Florida’s Polk County Extension Office.

Some sand pines, for instance, look more like pine needle bushes than Christmas trees. Other sand pines, however, look more like traditional trees, as do red cedars.

Sand pine, red cedar, Virginia pine, spruce pine and Leyland cypress are among the most common Christmas tree species grown in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

It takes three to six years for trees to grow to the height and shape consumers desire for home display, typically reaching 6- to 8-feet tall.

The reason why the state’s Christmas tree farmers grow Florida natives is because they’re the best suited to grow in Florida’s dry climate and sandy soil, Carnevale said.

As Murray found out from experience, they’re less prone to diseases and can better withstand Florida’s climate than other tree species.

“Here in Marion County, (natives are) what I can grow,” Murray said. “It’s too hot for anything else.”

Some debate exists regarding whether real or artificial trees are better for the environment.

An American Christmas Tree Association study last year evaluated the life cycles of a live tree and an artificial tree of the same height, from how they’re produced to how they are disposed of.

It concluded that a live tree is better for the environment if a person only uses a tree for one year. Reusing an artificial tree over several years uses fewer natural resources.

But live Christmas trees have other, less obvious, environmental benefits, Carnevale said.

Prior to their harvest, Christmas trees help improve soil quality, provide habitat for wildlife and produce oxygen that many animal and plant species — including humans — need to breathe, she said.

“In my role, I’m not trying to tell people to get a local tree; every family has to make that decision and what’s right for them,” Carnevale said. “But if you’re a family that likes to change things up, or haven’t had success finding an artificial tree that’s durable, perhaps you may be interested in a live tree or real tree instead.”

Picking a farm tree

When looking for a Christmas tree, people should look for signs of freshness such as a sappy, earthy smell from the branches, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.

Needles that fall off when touched and branches that break or don’t return to shape when bent are signs the tree is dying, according to the association.

Anyone who displays a Christmas tree,live or artificial, must also consider the heights of their ceilings when choosing one.

At Nicholas’s Christmas Tree Farm, Murray’s staff gives customers a pole with which to measure trees. This gives people an idea of whether the tree they’re considering is too tall to fit in the home.

Once inside the home, people must care for their trees to prevent them from becoming fire hazards.

The first and most important thing is watering the tree on a daily basis, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. Failing to do so causes the tree to dry out faster and become a fire hazard.

Murray said she gives her customers a care sheet when they purchase her trees. It recommends getting the tree into the home and in a bucket of warm water as soon as possible.

“They need to check that water every day,” she said. “If it’s a big tree, they have to check it twice a day.”

Murray and the association recommend people who display live Christmas trees place them at least 3 feet away from any source of heat.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.