Module 13: Non Timber Forest Products: Growing Opportunities

Lesson Six - A Green Christmas, Naturally

Green Christmas products are big business in Nova Scotia. The industry is worth $30,000,000.00 annually, and the province is a world-wide exporter of Christmas trees. Markets in the US account for 80% of exports, making it the single largest consumer of the province's trees and wreaths. This market is critical for the future health of Nova Scotia’s Christmas tree industry.

Christmas trees

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is king of Nova Scotia’s natural Christmas commodities. The tree grows well in nearly all areas of the province and has been cultivated as Christmas trees and exported for over 75 years. The sharp fragrance, soft blue-green foliage and ease of handling has given the balsam fir an edge over other species such as Douglas fir, Fraser fir, Noble fir, Scots pine, red pine and white pine.

Most woodlots in Nova Scotia already have balsam fir growing on them. If not, good quality seedlings are easy to purchase. Abandoned fields are often good places to plant or transplant fir seedlings, although grass and mouse control may be required on these sites.

Where healthy balsam fir is already found, many cutovers will regenerate to balsam fir. Here the trees can be left to grow until they are at least a metre in height. Where the balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges balsamea) is present, seed crops will likely be affected and good quality natural regeneration may be difficult to establish. In such sites, planting or stump tending will almost certainly be required.

Consumer demands for balsam fir vary in characteristics. A decade ago, thick foliage with a well-sheared conical shape was almost universally desired. Recent trends have been toward sparser foliage with a narrower profile. If a retailer will be purchasing your trees, it is very important to determine these characteristics early on, while there is still time to shear the tree. Some growers opt for a mixture of shapes and density, to guarantee a cross-section of the market.

Once fir trees have reached a metre in height some light shearing may be in order. The two most common kinds of shearing tools are pruning shears and shearing knives. The former are easier to control and safer to use, while shearing knives get the job done quickly. Keep in mind that good quality is always warranted.

When shearing trees to a desired shape, it is important to prune branches just in front of healthy, viable buds. These buds should be at least of average size, since they will be responsible for producing the next year's growth.

Shearing may be needed for a number of years, depending on the market requirements. During this time the grower has almost complete control over the final shapes of the trees. Again, many domestic growers who wish to retail their trees locally or operate a "U-Pick" may choose to vary shapes and sizes to appeal to consumer demand. Butt-pruning is an important treatment that helps the grower regulate the height and quality of the final product.

Balsam fir wreath

The optimal colour of Christmas trees is a deep blue-green. There are opportunities to improve the growth and colour of trees by applying fertilizer.

Where a deeper colour is required, or if there is yellowing (chlorosis) of the needles, fertilizer containing plenty of nitrogen can help.

There can be many setbacks during the growth of an average Christmas tree. During its 8 to 10 years of life, a tree can be infested with a number of insects and diseases, including spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana), balsam gall midge (Paradiplosis tumifex), balsam wooly adelgid (Adelges piceae), whitemarked tussock moth (Orgyia leucostigma) and yellow witches broom of fir (Melampsorella caryophyllacearum). Over the lifetime of the tree, the costs of controlling these pests can be significant.

Some of the brush that is generated during the tending of fir trees can be used in other products. For example, an entire industry has been established around fir tips, which can be utilized to create wreaths and Christmas ornaments. A number of First Nations communities have become proficient at wreath-making, directly adding value to a primary forest product. The raw brush is exported to other provinces and countries for use in products such as grave mats.

Business sprays

From beginning to end, the growing and tending of Christmas trees can be a substantial investment. A number of excellent sources of information are available, through the references listed at the back of this module.

There is an increasing momentum towards natural Christmas trees. Currently about 40% of Nova Scotians use natural Christmas products.

Other Floral Products

Tabletop greenery

The floral and wreath-making industry is growing in Nova Scotia. Many Christmas tree growers already have a small business in which they make wreaths and sprays from fir tips.

Mary van den Heuval of St. Andrew's, Antigonish County, has a vigorous business based out of her home. Each year prior to Christmas she makes dozens of wreaths and sprays which she sells to local markets.

"Wreaths and sprays are not difficult to make, but you must know what you're doing" indicates Mary. "I often add ribbons, cones and other natural materials to make the wreaths and sprays more colourful."

Mary's tri-sprays are popular with businesses and homeowners. Tri-sprays are three layers of fir tips, oriented in different directions to give a three-dimensional appearance. They can be suspended to sway in the breeze or fixed to a wall or door. Tri-sprays take less time and material to make than wreaths and are quickly gaining in popularity.