13 Dec

Tree of the month: Spruce

This month we look at the Norway spruce, used as the original Christmas tree in Britain tree when the tradition first began. We’ve been clearing up its bright-green needles from our floors since the Victorian times, but as a nation we now cut down 6 million of them for our homes every year. We explore how these special little trees can still be a part of our festive traditions while making the custom a little less wasteful…

These days there are a whole range of Christmas trees to choose from, from Douglas firs with their long-lasting needles and powerful fragrance to Scotch pines with their strong branches and brilliant green shade. But for years, the Norway spruce was the one true Christmas tree.

It was Prince Albert who first introduced the Norway spruce as a Christmas tree in 1841, bringing an old German tradition of decorating a spruce tree with candles to his family in England. With Queen Victoria being a bit of a trend setter, the tradition soon spread across Europe, making the tall and triangular spruce an iconic part of Christmas.

BERLIN, GERMANY – CIRCA 1900: antique family portrait of mother and children with Christmas tree wearing vintage clothing

Every year the Norwegian capital, Oslo, gifts a 50 – 60 year old spruce to the city of London, which is always erected in Trafalgar Square. Trees are also given to Edinburgh and Washington D.C. as a sign of gratitude for the aid given to Europe during the Second World War.

LONDON, UK – 22ND DECEMBER 2015: A view of Trafalgar Square in London during the Christmas Period. 

What to look out for…

The Norway spruce is a pretty fast-growing coniferous tree, reaching heights of up to 180 feet tall. They grow tall and straight, with a triangular cone shape. The younger bark is usually a coppery grey-brown colour and looks smooth despite its rough texture. The needles have fine white speckles and emit a rich, sweet smell. The Norway spruce is widespread across the UK, but its native to the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Balkans and Carpathians.

When you’re picking out your tree, you’ll naturally want to go for ones with lots of branches as they will look fuller and healthier, but you actually want one with some good gaps, to allow for ornaments and lights. If the tree is shaped a little bit like a wedding cake, with lots of ‘tiers’ or levels, then you’ve found yourself a good tree. Make sure all the needles look green and shiny too, so you know you’re picking a fresh tree that will keep its needles for longer.  

Spruce beer is made from the Norway spruce, which due to its high vitamin C content was used to prevent and treat scurvy. It can be drunk as a tea steeped from the shoot tips or even eaten from the tree when light green in spring. The tips are also used in Austrian medicine for problems with the respiratory tract, locomotor system, skin, gastrointestinal tract and infections. In Greek mythology, the spruce is the tree that represents Artemis, who was the goddess of the Moon.

The Norway spruce was originally grown for its timber, which is a strong, pale cream material. Our recommendation though? Just use them as Christmas trees, which is what they are most certainly best for.

The environmental effect

Plastic, artificial trees have a very high carbon footprint; you’d have to re-use it for at least 10 years to keep its environmental impact lower than that of a real tree. A Norway spruce is certainly a more sustainable option, but this is only if you responsibly dispose of the tree once the festivities are over with. If your tree goes to a landfill, it will begin to decompose and produce methane gas, which has a considerable effect on the environment in comparison to carbon dioxide.

Replanting your tree is the best option as you’re effectively recycling it every year but burning it on a bonfire or having it chipped to be spread in the garden will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions considerably.

A living Christmas tree that still has its root system intact will stay looking green and fresh all through the holiday season and can easily be replanted in January. Keep the tree away from heat (it doesn’t matter if the tree looks great by the fireplace, folks – put it in a different corner) and give it a few days in a cool garage or shed to re-enter dormancy before planting outside. Dig a hole that’s at least twice the size of the root and give a good drink of water. Don’t plant with any coverings over the roots, and don’t use any fertiliser.  

Recycle your tree!

There are usually local collection schemes for recycling your Christmas tree, so it’s worth checking online, but there are all sorts of options! Your tree could be given to your local animal sanctuary or wildlife park, as the animals love to use them as toys and scratching posts. Sometimes Christmas trees are used to make chippings for playgrounds or used to rebuild and support sand dunes at local beaches. Fisheries sink them into lakes to create shaded environments for the fish and other wildlife.

We take the threat facing the environment very seriously here at Westbury, and we strive to do everything we can to minimise our impact on the planet. We aim for self-sufficiency wherever possible, using leftover timber off cuts to feed our onsite biomass boiler to heat the office and workshop. Only 4% of the wood we use is hardwood, as we predominantly use Accoya®, an environmentally friendly timber that outperforms traditional hardwood in almost every respect.

You can find out more about our environmental policies and the way we reduce waste here.