As Maine is officially known as the Pine Tree State, you would be forgiven if you thought that the pine was the most common tree found within its borders — but it’s not. The balsam fir, Abies balsamica, whose fragrant branches are the scent of Christmas personified, is the most common. According to a recent newsletter from Forest for Maine’s Future, the balsam fir is a contender in almost every forest ecosystem in the state. It grows in mixed woods in southern and central Maine, reaches for the sky on abandoned farmland, crowds together in nearly pure stands of thousands of acres in northern Maine, and grows on Maine’s tallest peaks and in lowland valleys, on well-drained sites and dry uplands. 

Balsam fir wasn’t always this common. Researchers estimate that in pre-settlement times balsam fir made up only 10.5 percent of the trees in the woods over five inches in diameter at breast height. By the early 2000s it was 15.2 percent. Species that could rebound quickly after harvesting or when farmland was abandoned, like fir birch and red maple, all made gains. In the north, 150 years of harvesting targeted spruce, to the benefit of balsam fir, which is a fast-growing tree that matures at a young age. It also produces prodigious quantities of seeds that apparently aren’t as popular with animals as those of other conifers, so more of them sprout. Spruce, by comparison, is much slower growing.

Not initially as popular for lumber as spruce, balsam fir later became more desirable, as it can be turned into dimensional lumber or paper. On your next trip to a lumber yard, notice the code SPF stamped on your two-by-four. It stands for spruce-pine-fir, meaning it could be any of the three. In 2014 Maine harvested spruce and fir sawlogs (state figures lump the species together) worth nearly $76 million and nearly $16 million more of spruce and fir pulpwood — a lot of money, but a lot less than it was prior to the 2008 housing crisis and resulting recession. 

The value of balsam fir doesn’t stop at two-by-fours or pulp. Its fragrant branches are a mainstay of Maine’s holiday wreath industry. Tens of thousands of wreaths, woven in huge wreath factories or small home workshops, are shipped all across the country. And balsam fir is the preeminent Maine-grown Christmas tree. Millions are planted and tended on tree farms, shaped for as long as 12 years before they’re cut and make their way to corner lots and nurseries, waiting for families to take them home to take pride of place in the living or family room. 

Compare the life of a “real” Maine tree to that of an artifical one. During their years of growth, the trees provide habitat for birds and insects. They sequester carbon while they’re growing, and the ground they’re growing in keeps building up organic matter, which also helps keep carbon out of the atmosphere and in the soil. Nearly all Christmas tree growers plant a new tree for every one that is cut down, so sequestration continues long after the holidays, When trees are cut and decompose, they release their stored carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. However, many Maine towns now reuse the trees in ways that lessen the carbon release. Christmas trees are finding a second life in some Maine communities as mulch in parks and playgrounds. After Christmas, crews chip the trees into the mulch. When spread on the ground, it slowly decomposes, and the organisms that decompose the mulch then absorb some of the carbon.

Artificial trees, on the other hand, cannot be recycled when their usable life ends, plus a lot of fossil fuels are burned to create and ship them to the U.S. And, no one, to my knowledge, has written songs about the holiday scent of dusty fake paper or foil trees filling the air.

If you have access to a woodlot for tree-cutting or tipping for wreaths or swags, several things will help you decide whether a tree is a balsam fir or not. First, the cones stand upright on the branches. Second, the needles are flattened, and there is a dark stripe on the underside of each needle. And finally, there’s the spicy aroma that will fill your house with Christmas scent. The common white spruce tree, by comparison, has four-sided needles, and while the color and shape might be good for wreaths or a tree, when crushed, the needles smell like a skunk or cat, hence its alternative name, “cat spruce.” It’s not all bad to include some spruce in with boughs you gather for garlands and swags; a mix of textures and colors, including conifer greens with red osier twigs, bronzy cedar or glossy laurel, will still have the scent of Christmas as long as some balsam fir is in the mix.