Seeking right tree, at right price Holiday: Shoppers pine for a jolly evergreen to spruce up the home, but don't want to overpay.

December 08, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

With visions of her first live tree dancing through her head, Connie Bradford thoughtfully prowled the rows of an Ellicott City Christmas tree lot yesterday looking for the perfect selection.

She thought she had settled on an Eastern white pine before an 8-foot Douglas fir caught her eye. Not quite willing to give up on her first choice, she sat her 5-year-old son in front of it while she sized up her newest prospect.

"For eight years, we've used an artificial tree," she said. "This year I want something nice, full and jolly."

But not for more than $60. "Anything more than that is too much money," said Bradford, who lives in Ellicott City.

For many Maryland families, shopping for a Christmas tree is a rich tradition -- but they want to do it on the cheap.

Yesterday, families looking for a bargain headed to the tree lots at area schools and shopping centers and spent an average of $40 on the tree of their choice. Some were lured by signs along the road that read, "Any tree for $20, except for firs and spruces $35."

In Glen Burnie, Cecilia and Waidner Carlsen settled on a Scotch pine minutes after arriving at the Southdale shopping center on Route 2.

"Why spend a whole lot of money for a tree that's going to die in a couple of weeks?" asked Cecilia Carlsen.

Christmas trees are usually priced according to their type and height. The taller the tree, the more expensive it will be. The most popular types of trees are Fraser and Douglas firs and Scotch and Eastern white pines.

Trees can be distinguished by their needles. The needles of Fraser firs have a silver tint on their underside and are quite fragrant. Douglas firs have soft, full needles with a compact cylindrical shape. Balsam firs have soft, feathery, short, flat needles.

For pines, Eastern white pines have long needles in clusters of five. Scotch pines have short, stiff needles.

Firs typically cost between $35 and $65, and pines between $20 and $35 in the Baltimore area, about the same as in previous years, tree sellers said.

"With every fire department, Boy Scout troop and church group selling trees, it should be easy to find a good price," said Andy Cashman, executive secretary of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association. "It's a wide-open market."

For years, the Scotch pine -- with strong needles that support lights and ornaments well -- was the most popular Christmas tree, said Stephen Martz, who with his father runs a tree lot along Route 175 in Anne Arundel County.

But the tree of choice this season is the Fraser fir, the "Rolls Royce of Christmas trees," said Matthew Graf, who operates the tree lot at Loch Raven Middle School in Baltimore County.

"It's the best quality tree," he said. "It holds its needles longer."

Don Fitzgerald, who organizes the Wilde Lake High School Booster Club's tree sale at the Columbia school, said the club chose to sell only firs because of the low demand for pines.

To respond to the demand for Fraser firs, many of the 130 tree growers who are members of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association grow them, Cashman said.

"Everyone likes the way they look and smell," he said. "And everyone believes the needles stay on longer, but that's not true."

But a shopper's taste and price ranges can change from year to year, said Marshall Stacy, a Garrett County tree farmer who sells on the YMCA lot in Ellicott City.

"When I first started selling here in 1968, I only had one type of tree -- the Scotch pine. But I've grown to realize that a tree lot

should be like a shoe store," he said. "Trends change. There ought to be a variety.

"Customers are all different," he said. "There are those who buy a $5 tree and say 'Bah humbug, I'm done.' But then there are others who consider shopping for a tree a family tradition."

Jeff and Louise Hanson were among the shoppers with discriminating tastes, but they had a price range. They analyzed the color and texture and the height and shape of trees before settling on a $65 Fraser fir.

"It's a good deal," said Louise Hanson. "We could have easily spent more than $100."

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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