11 December 2019

7 surprising facts about Christmas trees

There's more to these festive favourites than meets the eye.

By Ellen McHale

Looking up at Wakehurst Christmas tree lights on tree

Every year, millions of us bring trees into our homes as a centrepiece for celebrations. But how much do you really know about them? 

There are many different species

Christmas trees are usually evergreen conifers, such as spruce, fir and pines.

Although Christmas trees in the shops all look very similar, there are many different species of conifers amongst the mass of green. 

Some of the most popular are the Norway spruce (Picea abies), nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), blue spruce (Picea pungens) and fraser fir (Abies fraseri). 

Different species of tree have different characteristics. Some, like the fraser fir, are known for their stronger scents. The nordmann fir, which is one of the UK's most popular trees, has a gentler scent and holds onto its needles (a good one to pick if you dislike hoovering). 

Nordmann fir, Pinetum
Nordmann fir, Pinetum, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew

Decorating trees gained popularity in the 1800s 

Sparkling Christmas trees covered in tinsel are one of the classic images of Christmas. 

But the tradition of decorating trees only came to the UK relatively recently. It originally came from Germany, and was made popular in Victorian times by Queen Victoria and her husband Albert. 

Back then, the trees on sake were smaller so people would put them on tables. Norway soon started to export larger trees, so people could place them on the floor with space for presents underneath.

Christmas tree
Christmas tree/Unsplash

Nuts and candles were used as decorations

Tree decorations used to be very different from the familiar baubles and tinsel we use today. 

Whilst the UK adopted tree decorating during the Victorian times, the actual tradition itself is thought to have originated in 16th century Germany, where nuts, berries, apples and candles were used to decorate small evergreens. They used tinsel made of shredded silver to give that extra sparkle.

For tree decorations with a difference, browse our beautiful selection to give your Christmas tree some extra glitz this year. 

Kew baubles
Kew baubles, Christmas © RBG Kew

The UK's tallest living Christmas tree 

The tallest living Christmas tree in the UK grows at Wakehurst, our wild botanic garden in Sussex. Decorated with 1,800 lights, it's a stunning part of our winter lantern trail Glow Wild

Decorating a tree this large takes a bit longer than the Christmas tree in your home. It took 12 hours to cover with lights, with five staff members and two cherry pickers hard at work. 

Tough giants 

In the wild, some of the species that we use as Christmas trees can grow to be giants and live for many years. 

Douglas firs can grow up to 55 metres, whilst nordmann firs and Norway spruce can reach a mighty 60 metres. 

Originally from Scandinavia, the Norway spruce is a tough cookie. Completely frost hardy, it has thick bark to protect it from the cold, thin waxy needles to prevent water loss, and pine cones protect the seeds during harsh weather. 

The Norway spruce is the typical tree gifted by the Norwegians to Trafalgar Square for their iconic display every year. This has been a tradition since 1947, as a way of saying thankyou for support in the Second World War. 

A UK native 

A less common tree grown commercially for Christmas is the scots pine (Pinus sylvestris). 

They're the only pine tree native to Britain, they can grow up to 35 metres and live for up to 700 years. Look out for their red scaly bark and brown pine cones. 

In the wild, this species loves to grow in heathland and many of them grow in the Scottish highlands, where they support rare species such as red squirrels and pine martens. 

Scots pine © RBG Kew
Scots pine © RBG Kew
Scots pine
Scots pine © RBG Kew

See them for yourself 

See these trees thriving in our stunning Pinetum. You can see Norway spruce, nordmann firs and blue spruce in this area of the Gardens. 

One of our Gardens’ hidden gems, it's tucked away within the Arboretum to the south of the Gardens. Spanning 40 acres, it's home to an incredibly diverse collection of conifer trees.

Conifers have existed for over 300 million years, and the fossilised remains of ancient conifers have helped scientists trace the geological history of the Earth. 

Nordmann fir
Nordmann fir, Pinetum, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
Nordmann fir
Nordmann fir, Pinetum, Ellen McHale © RBG Kew
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