Derbyshire Life - - People -

Fifty years ago Christ­mas trees were pre­dom­i­nantly five- to eight-year-old Nor­way spruces ( Picea abies: Picea the Latin name for the tree; abies the Latin name for a fir tree: so lit­er­ally a spruce tree that looks like a fir). They were mostly bought dur­ing De­cem­ber from lo­cal shops or de­pots scat­tered around the coun­try­side and cost around £1 a foot (equiv­a­lent to about £20 a foot to­day) with the grower hav­ing been paid for his years of lov­ing care one shilling a foot ( c.£ 1 a foot to­day). They sel­dom had any roots but if they were freshly cut and you put the stumps into a bucket of wa­ter as soon as you got home, with a bit of luck they would keep their nee­dles un­til Twelfth Night.

Not so if yours was one of the 25 per cent of houses which had cen­tral heat­ing in the 1960s: your lovely, or­na­ment and tin­sel-be­decked tree be­gan to look more brown than green be­fore Christ­mas and by Twelfth night your vac­uum cleaner was clogged with green nee­dles.

How do I know all this? Trust me: I’m a forester.

Cen­tral heat­ing in houses grew rapidly in the 1970s – by 1980 60 per cent of houses had cen­tral heat­ing – and Picea abies be­came in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar be­cause the warmer the room the faster its nee­dles fell. Foresters rose to the oc­ca­sion, firstly by of­fer­ing pine trees which keep their nee­dles bet­ter but frankly don’t look much like a tra­di­tional Christ­mas tree, then ‘de­signer’ trees with ex­otic names: Nord­mann, Fraser, No­ble and Dou­glas firs, Ser­bian and blue spruce – all more ex­pen­sive than Nor­way spruce. And that’s where we are to­day. When you go to buy your Christ­mas tree this year you will be faced with the dilemma of choos­ing a tra­di­tional po­ten­tially nee­dle-shed­ding Nor­way spruce or a wal­let­bust­ing de­signer tree with a name you will prob­a­bly have dif­fi­culty re­mem­ber­ing.

Queen Vic­to­ria and her con­sort Prince Al­bert are usu­ally cred­ited with start­ing the Christ­mas tree tra­di­tion in the United King­dom when, in 1840, they im­ported sev­eral spruce trees from Ger­many. Although it is fair to say that this prob­a­bly started the Christ­mas tree tra­di­tion, dec­o­rated spruces had been part of the Christ­mas tra­di­tion in Bri­tain amongst the aris­toc­racy long be­fore then. Forty years ear­lier, dur­ing De­cem­ber 1800, Queen Char­lotte, the Ger­man wife of Ge­orge III, set up the first recorded tree at Queen’s Lodge, Wind­sor. She must have been im­bued with a Ger­man tra­di­tion that went back at least an­other 200 years as there is a re­port dated 1605, from an un­known source, of how at Yule­tide peo­ple in Stras­bourg ‘set up fir trees in the par­lours and hang thereon cut out of many-coloured pa­per, ap­ples, wafers, gold foil etc.’

Far less well known is the fact that we owe a debt of grat­i­tude to the Nor­way spruce for much more than be­ing nice to look at dur­ing the fes­ti­val of Christ­mas, for it has been largely re­spon­si­ble for the plea­sure gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple have de­rived from lis­ten­ing to mu­sic.

But first some botan­i­cal stuff. Picea abies is na­tive through­out Europe from Nor­way in the north­west, Poland in the east, the moun­tains of cen­tral Europe and south to the north of Greece.

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