Creature Feature: Yule Trees—A Winter Tradition

Many years ago the Nordic people, living within the frigid forests of northern Germany, brought evergreen conifers into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice, a return to light, and the Norse god Jul (eventually called Yule). This custom slowly spread across Europe until traditions merged in the early 1500s and the Yule tree and Christ’s Mass became one and the same. The tradition arrived, as a Christian celebration of Jesus, in the New World in the mid 1700s. Today the most popular Yule trees in the United States include the Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, white fir, noble fir, and white pine. In the Pacific Northwest, we love to use local firs including the noble and white.

Western white pine (Pinus monticola). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.
Western white pine (Pinus monticola). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.

Pacific Slope Yule Trees

PINACEAE

The Pinaceae family contains the firs, Douglas-firs, spruces, pines, larches, and hemlocks. This group is differentiated from other conifers by the unfused seed scale and bract scale structures of the cone.

White fir (Abies concolor). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.
White fir (Abies concolor). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.

Abies—true firs

Trees with evergreen, aromatic needles that attach singly to the twig. Crowns are usually spire-like or conical. Bark has rounded resin blisters when young and develops furrows and ridges with age; ridges sometimes flake into platelets. Diagnostic seed cones are ovoid to cylindrical and sit in clusters, upright from branches, at the tops of trees.

Pinus—pines

Trees are evergreen with single or multi-stemmed trunks and conical or cylindrical crowns that broaden with age. Bark is highly variable at maturity but often divided into plates. Needles in bundles of three or five (some in one, two, or four), bound by a fascicle. Seed cones are cylindrical and varied in size with spirally arranged scales. Most species-rich conifer family.

Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.
Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.

Pseudotsuga—Douglas-firs

Single-trunked evergreen trees with conical crowns maturing to cylindrical. Bark is divided into thick ridges by deep furrows. Needles are single and arranged spirally around branches. Seed cones are ovoid and oblong, hanging singly with distinct bracts protruding beyond scales. Douglas-fir is the most economically important lumber tree in the world.

CUPRESSACEAE—the forgotten Yule trees

The Cupressaceae family contains the cypresses, junipers, “cedars,” and redwoods. This is the most widely distributed family of conifers in the world. Its trees and shrubs are generally aromatic, with spherical cones, and scale-like needles. Not so popular as a Yule trees, but should be better appreciated!

Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.
Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). Photo: Michael Kauffmann.

Calocedrus—incense-cedar

More or less only grows in California where it favors dry sites in montane forest. The needles are scale-like and persistent. I think it is one of the perfect Yule trees because the needles stay green and don’t fall off for a long time!

The TAXACEAE family contains the yews, which develop seeds singly in a fleshy aril rather than a woody cone. Not used as yule trees in our region.

Other trees to consider for Yule: redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and western redcedar (Thuja plicata).