This month, the topic of Christmas-tree preferences has bounced around in my mind, mostly because Jolie, my intrepid companion, talked me into settling for an artificial tree instead of our usual aromatic balsam fir.

Pondering Christmas-tree choices surprises me, too. All my life, I have traditionally leaned toward balsam fir without much thought. Whether it’s right or wrong, Maine natives like me just plain choose this tree for the holidays — instinctive like baked beans on Saturday night.

Recently on “Bill Green’s Maine,” a WCSH television show, a Christmas-tree grower in the business since 1967 said he also preferred balsam fir. This guy really made me regret the artificial tree, so while watching the show, I said, “If it’s good enough for a pro, it’s good enough for me.”

Two endearing qualities of this fir include the perfectly pyramidal shape and somewhat soft foliage. The 1/2- to 1-inch needles make two even rows on each side of the branchlets and stick out parallel to the ground, which create flat-looking limbs that just beg for Christmas ornaments.

The “flat” needle rows contrast with Maine’s three common spruce species – white, red and black. Those three have needles radiating outward around the branch, a prickly design to discourage foraging critters.

Balsam-fir needles grow stiffer than eastern hemlock but far less sharp than spruces, which poke into our hands as we carry or decorate the tree.

During childhood in the few times my family had a spruce Christmas tree, my Grandmother French would caution me, “Don’t ‘brad’ your hands.”

Like many hunters, anglers, birdwatchers and amateur naturalists, I have observed and studied how wildlife use trees and shrubs species for forage or cover, so myriad anecdotes about Maine conifers fill my head.

For example, here’s just one: Whitetail bucks choose certain conifer species for their annual breeding ritual, and they consistently prefer balsam fir, eastern hemlock and the three spruces. They’ll also use American beech and red maple in a pinch. However, bucks prefer balsam fir or hemlock to the spruces or beech and maple. …More on those points later.

To attract breeding does, bucks find an overhanging limb 5- to 5 1/2-feet above the ground, and inevitably, they choose a limb growing near a dense thicket that lies downwind to prevailing breezes. That way, they can sneak up to the scrape while diligently scrutinizing with eyes and nose for predators that concentrate on these scent-laden spots.

Bucks often choose the exact same limbs year after year, and they paw up a 3- to 3 1/2-foot circular scrape below them. Then, they hold their back legs together over the scrape and urinate through the tarsal glands on the inside of the legs, dribbling the scented urine onto the loosened soil. They then rub the preorbital glands on the inside corner of the eyes onto the branch above. These abundant scents attract potential mates that come later to pee into the scrape, a message for the buck.

This is strictly anthropomorphizing on my part, but in my humble opinion, whitetails prefer balsam fir or hemlock for softness. Spruce needles are sharp, and in fact, they can cause eye injuries as I once learned firsthand.

Twenty years ago during a predawn snowstorm, I was walking to a deer stand in pitch dark and managed to brush a white-spruce needle across an open eye, which made a vertical slice on the center of the pupil. This injury caused double vision and required multiple visits to the optometrist.

White spruce and balsam fir rank as favorite Maine choices for Christmas trees, but casual observers often mix them up. Both live in similar habitat but differ in needle placement and in size and longevity:

White spruce usually reach 50 to 100 feet tall and can hit 150 feet, towering over balsam fir. This species can live to 250 to 300 years old, slow growing compared to fir, and the trunk in older trees can grow to two feet.

Balsam fir can stand 46 to 66 feet tall, a fast growing species that rarely gets to 90 feet, and trunks can reach 12 to 20 inches in diameter. This fir survives for 90 to 150 years, usually the shorter span.

In fact, I once counted the rings on a monarch balsam fir that rangers had cut up on the ocean’s edge at Wolfs Neck Woods State Park near downtown Freeport — 109-year-old despite the large size.

One feature of balsam fir in its younger stage intrigues children, the resinous-filled blisters on the smooth bark. Kids love to pop them with a sharp twig. I still do it at times — just for old-time sake.

Each December in youth, my family always cut Christmas trees in the woods near home, but these days, folks buy farmed trees that look perfect compared to the ragged specimens we found growing wild.

Those Charlie Brown trees had character, though, beginning with a fact: While hunting or playing, we watched them grow for years before cutting them down when they reached the right height, a ritual that most kids today will never know.

Many times as a kid, I’ve looked at a Christmas tree in the living room and remembered the many times of walking by it through the years when it stood in the forest. These memories gave the holiday tree an identity.

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