LAKE CITY — Set off a short distance from the road on Vultaggio Brothers Tree Farms' 100-plus acre property in Boon is a row of Fraser firs that Vince Vultaggio considers the cream of the crop.
"That is a perfect tree," Vultaggio said, pointing to a 9-foot, immaculately trimmed Fraser fir that seemed to exude an aura of Christmas cheer from every branch and needle. Although Vultaggio said this tree could easily go for $150, the majority of buyers are interested in much smaller and more affordable offerings at the farm.
Once the co-owner of 79 farms throughout Michigan, after the passing of his brother, Vultaggio downsized considerably; today, he operates 17 farms.
Over the years, Vultaggio said the market has shifted from people buying mostly Scotch pine to preferring fir species instead.
Vultaggio said he thinks the top four best trees are Fraser fir, concolor fir, Douglas fir and Scotch pine.
A major benefit of the fir species is their ability to retain needles even after they have dried out; some other species will shed needles within a couple of weeks, creating a mess and potential fire hazard.
Another upside specific to concolor fir is their citrus scent, which Vultaggio said can be accentuated by popping one of the many sap-filled bumps in the tree stem every 3-4 days.
Fir needles are quite soft, yet their branches are strong enough to handle even the heaviest ornaments, Vultaggio said.
Those looking for the perfect tree should start their search early in the season, so they get the pick of the best trees on the lot. After finding the tree, Vultaggio said it's important to make a one-inch fresh cut at the bottom of the stem before placing it in water; the cut allows the stem to more efficiently absorb the water.
Jill O'Donnell; Christmas tree educator for MSU Extension, suggests thinking about the size you really need before making a decision to purchase. She said trees in the field are bigger than they appear, which is why measuring the tree is essential.
If you’re cutting your own, you know it’s fresh, but at a retail lot, take a branch in hand, and pull it lightly toward you — if a lot of needles fall out, it may have dried out, O'Donnell said.
If you have heavy ornaments, O'Donnell said white pine might not be the best choice.
A fresh tree can take up a lot of water — a four-inch trunk may take a gallon of water a day, she said.
Although firs remain among the most popular trees right now, they aren't the only species available in Northern Michigan.
O'Donnell said there are at least eight varieties readily available in this area: Fraser fir, balsam fir, concolor fir, Canaan fir, blue spruce and black hill spruce, Scotch and white pine.
“Some people may think of Scotch pine as being the tree they grew up with and it has good needle retention,‘ O'Donnell said.
With Christmas tree farmers significantly reducing operations around the time of the Great Recession, Vultaggio predicted a tree shortage during the next several years until trees that have been planted relatively recently have enough time to fully mature.
Fraser fir, in particular, could be in high demand, and their absence in the marketplace may prompt some consumers to return to trees that have become less popular over the years, including spruce.