The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by German mercenary soldiers.

The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by German mercenary soldiers during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). But it wasn't until 1851 that the first retail lot to sell balsam fir Christmas trees from the Catskills was set up in New York City. Today, more than 37 million U.S. families celebrate the holidays with the presence of a real evergreen tree. And according to figures of the National Christmas Tree Growers Association, the balsam fir still ranks as the favorite.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) grows from Alberta to Newfoundland and south across the Lake States into Pennsylvania. In the wild, the tree can grow to 90' tall with a 20" diameter in 150 years. On Christmas tree farms, though, it takes about 10 years for a balsam fir to reach an average market height of 6-7'.

Why has the balsam fir proved so popular? Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, and noble fir have their following, but only the balsam fir is naturally symmetrical, with dense branches and a straight stem ending in a spire perfect for decoration. Its long-lasting, dark-green needles retain their pleasing fragrance indoors. In fact, North Woods' campers ensured a pleasant night's sleep with the aromatic boughs as pillow stuffing.

Unfortunately, the wood of balsam fir lacks the reputation of this favorite holiday tree. The soft and brittle stock primarily becomes paper, although some is used for light construction, interior paneling, and crates.