The Scent of Christmas: Where Does It Come From?

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A live Christmas tree adds extra presence to the Christmas season. It stems back from a time when Europeans and other cultures in temperate climates would bring greenery cut from the wild into their homes to bring life inside and brighten up the dark winter nights. There are customs and traditions around the world around different types of greenery, but in the United States we love our Frasier Firs, Abies fraseri. It should be extra special to our North Carolina hearts, as Frasier Firs are native to the Appalachian Mountains and North Carolina is one of the top Christmas tree-growing states in the country. As someone who grew up here in North Carolina, I have always loved the smell of a fresh Christmas tree, but what causes this unique scent?


Frasier Fir, Abies fraseri

The Frasier fir is in the genus Abies, which is in the Pine Family, Pinaceae. That family is known for its evergreen members with needle-like leaves, cone-like fruit, and sappy nature. Species of Abies occur around the world and are sometimes used in their respective areas as Christmas season decorations. Horticulturists haveCut Abies Foliage - Photo by Amanda Wilkins brought exotic firs into the U.S. to try growing them in our various climates in the U.S., given how challenging it can be growing a Frasier fir outside of the mountains. One of the hallmarks of this family is the presence of thick sap, which the tree uses to protect itself from insect and animal damage. It acts almost like a self-sealing band aid. Humans have used this sap for other industrial purposes, as well (think turpentine)!

The Scent of Christmas

Every Christmas candle seems to be named after some sort of tree, but nothing comes close to the real thing. The scent is coming from the tree releasing volatile compounds from the foliage and other tissues in your home. These volatiles include monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and terpenoids. It is hard to recreate them in candle form because they can quickly evaporate.

These specialized compounds help plants survive periods of stress. Some monoterpenes have been shown to stop insects feeding on the tissues in some species of pines. Some terpenoids have been shown to have antimicrobial effects. Remember, trees can’t run away or go to the doctor, so they have to be able to take care of themselves where they are!

The big heavy-hitter compound for Frasier firs is a sap-like substance called oleoresin, and it helps Frasier firs to defend against certain pests and pathogens. This substance is especially prevalent on the buds of trees. For those of you whoStomatoal bands - Photo by Amanda Wilkins have wrestled a Christmas tree know when they walk away feeling sticky. Oleoresin has a low boiling point and contains terpenes. When the trees are displayed indoors, the ambient temperature heats the oleoresin, causing the terpenes to evaporate. This is why you only need a few sprigs to get that quintessential Christmas tree smell!