Tis the Season
On South Carolina Christmas tree farms, preparing for the festive season lasts all year long.
When Susan Fink and her husband, Chip, purchased a 30-acre farm in Greenville in 1983, the couple planned to use the land for her horses but a small plot of Virginia Pines growing on the acreage led to a new plan. The couple opened Mystic Tree Farm and started selling ‘choose and cut’ Christmas trees.
“We didn’t know a thing about [growing Christmas trees] when we started,” Fink explains. “We thought, ‘this looks easy; we’ll try it.’”
Four decades later, the Finks have expanded the operation from two acres of Virginia Pines to six acres that includes white pines, Carolina Sapphire, Blue Ice cypress and Leyland cypress trees.
When it comes to Christmas trees, states like Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania have the largest number of growers. South Carolina might be an under-the-radar growing region but there are a lot more Christmas tree farms than most people realize—and an increased interest in supporting local farms has made South Carolina Christmas trees more popular than ever.
The South Carolina Christmas Tree Association has 46 member farms across the state and association secretary (and grower) Steve Penland estimates there are an additional 20 non-member tree farms in South Carolina. The financial impact is close to $4 million annually.
“South Carolina Christmas tree farms sell about 40,000 South Carolina-grown Christmas trees at their ‘choose and cut’ tree farms every year,” says Penland. “Most sell out early, and acreage is being increased.”
Fraser firs remain the quintessential Christmas tree and South Carolina growers often purchase pre-cut trees, which have strong branches, blue green needles, and an amazing aroma, from North Carolina farms, to sell during the holiday season.
“South Carolina farms are not able to grow fir trees due to our elevation, heat and soil conditions,” says Penland.
Fraser firs are also in short supply. North Carolina growers took a hiatus from growing the trees during the recession, according to Allison Moses, a second-generation grower at Penland Tree Farm in York. Although new fields of Fraser firs have been planted, it takes eight to 10 years for the trees to reach maturity, creating a gap in the market.
“There are fewer farms [selling Fraser firs] and they are much more expensive,” Moses says.
Pandemic-related supply chain issues also made it harder to ship Christmas trees (both real and fake trees), sending merrymakers in search of locally grown options for their holiday decorating.
Fortunately, several species of Christmas trees grow well in South Carolina and the shortage of Fraser firs has led to an increased interest in local options. Local growers stepped up to meet the demand.
Carolina Sapphire and Blue Ice cypress: These cypress trees are among the newest species developed for Christmas trees. Both species have soft, blue green needles, dense branches, and strong aroma. These trees are known for drying out quickly though even with adequate water and are best purchased three to four weeks before Christmas.
Leyland cypress: This is perhaps the most popular species of South Carolina Christmas tree. Its needles are a dark grey-green in color and strong with limited dropping but the aroma is limited. Murray cypress is a variety of the Leyland cypress and has several of the same characteristics. Cypress trees don’t produce sap.
Virginia pine: This species is native to the South with short needles and a pine scent. Virginia pines have strong branches perfect for hanging oversized ornaments. White pine is another pine option. White pines have soft blue-green needles and a pine scent, but their slender branches are better suited to small, lightweight ornaments.
A one-acre field holds up to 1,200 Christmas trees, and it takes at least five years for a sapling to reach full size, according to Moses. Growers plant new saplings annually and spend the season preparing fields, planting new trees, fertilizing and shaping trees until they are ready to be cut and decorated for Christmas.
“There is so much to do,” says Moses. “We love growing Christmas trees and have our blood, sweat, and tears in every tree. The person who’s selling you the tree is the one who’s done all the work.”
Penland Tree Farm started selling ‘choose and cut’ Christmas trees in 1972. Moses grew up on the farm and took over the business after her parents, Steve and Judy Penland, retired. The farm grows Leyland cypress, Virginia pine, white pine, Carolina Sapphire, Christmas mint cypress, red cedar and Blue Ice trees.
South Carolina Christmas tree farms are racing to keep up with the interest in locally grown Christmas trees. In 2021, the Finks planted 1,600 additional trees; an additional 2,000 trees were planted this spring and they hope to continue expanding their growing area.
Moses starts selling trees the Friday after Thanksgiving and sells out in two to three weekends. Fink has a similar timeline.
“We used to be open until December 20,” she says. “In the last three years, our business has grown 30 percent and we’ve sold out the week after Thanksgiving.”
Fink tells those who want to decorate South Carolina grown Christmas trees to plan to purchase their trees as soon as farms open for the best selection—and to ensure that the trees aren’t sold out for the season.
An Evergreen Experience
All the hard work pays off in November when farms like Mystic Tree Farm and Penland Tree Farm open to the public and start selling trees.
Each farm has a different set up: Mystic Tree Farms sells ‘choose and cut’ Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths. On weekends, a mini train ride runs through the farm, and the smell of fresh kettle corn fills the air. Fink also sets up multiple festive vignettes, including a full-sized sleigh with reindeer, for family friendly photo opportunities.
“We try to add something new every year,” says Fink. “Some people come and cut a tree and leave but others spend a few hours here enjoying the atmosphere.”
Penland Tree Farm operates hayrides into the Christmas tree fields, sending families out with saws to cut their own trees and the elves take care of the rest, shaking loose needles and wrapping trees for the ride home. The farm also serves hot chocolate and s’mores around the fire pit and stocks a treasure barn full of ornaments. The goal is to sell trees and provide an experience that visitors will remember long after the season ends.
“Family tradition is a very big deal to me, and a lot of people have memories of going out into the pasture and cutting trees at Christmas,” Moses says. “Some families have been coming here for 48 years, and we’re so proud to be part of that tradition.”
This season, make plans to visit one of these South Carolina Christmas tree farms.
Mystic Tree Farm
9029 Old White Horse Rd.
Penland Tree Farm
6457 Campbell Rd
Three Brothers Christmas Tree Farm
3303 Winery Rd.
Coleman Family Farm
2165 Lloyd Dr
Mixon Christmas Tree Farm
6254 Lake Robinson Rd
Old Time Christmas Tree Farm
2042 Moseley Drive
Booth’s Christmas Tree Farm
5268 Adrian Highway
Christmas Hill Tree Farm and Nursery
150 Riverside Rd.
Visit the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association, scchristmastrees.org, and use the Find a Farm tool to locate a local grower.
Sidebar: Caring for a Fresh Christmas Tree
Follow these tips to ensure your fresh cut Christmas tree lasts all season long.
Make a fresh cut: Remove a one-half inch disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the Christmas tree in the stand. Cut the stem straight across, not at an angle or into a V-shape.
Water ASAP: Fresh cut Christmas trees shouldn’t go too long without water. If you need time to set up your tree stand, place the trunk in a bucket of water.
Provide adequate water: Place your tree in a stand with a water reservoir. The National Christmas Tree Association recommends at least one inch of water per inch of stem diameter.
Check water daily: Add fresh water as needed making sure to never let the water level get low. The temperature of the water is unimportant.
Choose the right location: Your Christmas tree should be kept away from fireplaces, heat vents, portable heaters, and other heat sources to minimize the risk of fire. Heat sources will also cause your tree to dry out quickly, shortening its lifespan.
Remember safety tips: Never decorate a tree with worn or frayed light sets; never overload electric circuits; and always turn off the tree lights before leaving the house or going to bed.
Recycle: Don’t send your Christmas tree to the landfill. At the end of the season, Christmas trees can be turned into valuable garden mulch. Look for local programs that will recycle your tree.