Alaska Christmas trees: backyard charm or out-of-state beauty?

Cari Bowhay stands in front of her favorite decorated tree at Glacier Gardens Nursery, dubbed the “peacock tree.” (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

This year, the Governor’s Mansion is decorated for the holidays with a Sitka spruce tree from the Tongass National Forest. But Alaskans in the capital city aren’t just decking the halls with local greenery.

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Cari Bowhay has worked through nearly 16 holiday seasons at Glacier Garden Nursery. And although it’s busy, she thinks there’s something special about being here this time of year.

“It always smells like Christmas,” Bowhay said. “It’s better than smelling like dirt the rest of the year and everybody seems to be 90 percent happier this time of year.”

Outside the nursery, a variety of fir trees are leaned up against posts separated by type in different corrals. These evergreens were barged up by the thousands from tree farms in Washington state. Most of them have sold. There’s only about 40 left.

Bowhay gestures to a Grand Fir that looks like a perfectly symmetrical cone.

“The tree farms definitely prune and shape all the trees to where they have that … nice tapered look,” Bowhay said.

Southeast Alaska has no shortage of trees growing outside. In fact, the City and Borough of Juneau and the Tongass National Forest allows people to harvest their own, within certain guidelines. You can cut hemlock or Sitka spruce, although you might poke yourself carrying it out of the woods. Spruce has sharp needles.

Due to a national Christmas tree shortage this year, the price of trees at Glacier Gardens Nursery did go up. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

But that classic-looking commercial Christmas tree, typically fir, has a hard time growing in the state.

“Well, Douglas Fir doesn’t grow up here, presumably because it’s a little too cold for it,”  Brian Buma, an ecology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, said.

There is a tree farm in Kodiak growing non-native Fraser firs.

But Buma says typically fir trees do well in places with dry, hot summers. It’s not exactly that they can’t handle the cold. They grow in the mountains of Colorado, for instance. But access to sunlight and a long growing season is important for the tree’s competitive survival.

Still, Buma says fir trees growing wild in Alaska isn’t out of the question.

“That’s something we’re actually thinking about,” Buma said. “There’s things like silver fir that will presumably be moving north as the climate warms.”

And Buma says they already have. Silver firs have been spotted in parts of Southeast. Even so, he says it can take decades for that type of tree to make a natural migration north.

“But the climate may be warming fast enough that people will start planting them in their yard far sooner you see them grow up naturally,” Buma said.

Buma says he likes the tradition of tromping through the woods and cutting down his own tree. His home is decorated with a Sitka spruce.

“I’m looking at it right now. It’s a very sad looking spruce,” Buma said with a laugh. “The only spot we can put it in our house is right in front of our heater.”

Back at the Glacier Garden Nursery, Cari Bowhay says everyone has their own holiday tradition. Hers includes buying fir trees barged up from Washington state.

“So we started coming here as a kid to get our Christmas tree. So I’ve been coming here a long time, and now I work here,” Bowhay said. “I get to enjoy the joy of seeing people coming in with their kids and bringing them in to see Santa and all that fun stuff.”

Bowhay says spending time with family and friends — no matter where you get your tree — is what the holiday spirit is all about.