Say the words “Christmas tree” and you’re probably picturing stately conifers like fir, pine, spruce, and cedar, or even the less common cypress. You might be familiar with Scotch pine, Virginia pine, and Eastern white pine, and you’ve likely never heard of Monterey pine.
In fact, it doesn’t even make the list of popular Christmas trees at the National Christmas Tree Association.
But in Southern California, Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) is the de facto Christmas tree, grown on suburban tree farms spanning hundreds of acres in our Mediterranean climate.
It is the quintessential Southern California Christmas tree, and only here will you find families out in the fields, hunting for that perfect Christmas tree in December while wearing shorts and flip flops. (And as you can see, I was completely overdressed in my flannel and jeans.)
For the first time since we started dating eight years ago, the hubby and I are spending Christmas at home. Just us and the pugs, and our extended family of friends on Christmas Eve. His mother gifted us with a box of ornaments from his childhood in hopes that we would start our own holiday tradition, and that included trimming our own Christmas tree.
It would’ve been easy to just pluck a tree out of a parking lot and call it a day, but we wanted to make a real, full day of it — out on a farm, strolling among stands of trees until we found the perfect one.
Our nearest tree farm was an hour away in Orange County, just off a highway in Carbon Canyon. It was 75°F that afternoon, and the palm trees towering above the pine groves made the excursion feel more like a summer vacation than a Christmas tradition.
(You remember our sweet pug Bug?)
Like all Christmas tree farms in Southern California, Peltzer Pines specializes in Monterey pines, which have long, soft needles, a deep green color and a rich pine fragrance.
The conifers are rare in North America, native to only five small regions on the west coast: the Año Nuevo area in Santa Cruz County, the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey County, the Cambria area in San Luis Obispo County, and Cedros Island and Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
Compare that to New Zealand, another native habitat, where they grow on millions of acres and are a national icon. (Though in the Southern Hemisphere they’re treasured for their timber, and not as a seasonal symbol of Christmas. The New Zealand Christmas tree is actually a coastal evergreen in the myrtle family called a pohutukawa.)
In fact, many of the Christmas tree farms in California (including Peltzer) get their Monterey pine seed from New Zealand, where they’re known as radiata pines. They grow to size quickly thanks to irrigation, and are ready to harvest in only four years.
We walked up and down row after row of well pruned Monterey pines, debating the merits of each. Was this one too tall, or this one too wide? Did this have rambling branches that might require more pruning at home?
I actually have a confession: We thought we’d found our tree, just five minutes after we’d parked and walked across the parking lot. It was a shapely pine right on the edge of the farm and hadn’t been red-tagged yet.
But Will insisted that a Christmas tree search wasn’t complete without spending at least an hour arguing over our favorites, as his family was wont to do back in the day!
So we circled the farm and finally found the one: a fat pine just shy of 7 feet tall. It was beautiful!
We sawed it down and secured it to the roof of the car. When we brought it into our house, it instantly released an intoxicating pine scent that normally only comes from camping in the woods.
Though it might still feel like summer outside, inside it’s undoubtedly Christmas.