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Some Americans Pine For Exotic Christmas Trees

The words "exotic" and "Christmas tree" are not often used in the same sentence, unless you're Bob Girardin. The New Hampshire tree farmer grows conifers from all over the world in Sanbornton, a small community in the central part of the state. He's been called a visionary…but he prefers the term pioneer.

"I have fun out here, just with my trees," says Mr.Girardin as he conducts a tour of some of the 13,000 trees on his Willow Pond Farm. "Straight ahead is Korean fir…see the flash of white? Ever seen anything so beautiful in your life? Over here is Vetch fir from Japan. Look at that foliage!"

Some 24 million Christmas trees will be sold across the United States this season -- up slightly from last year, when Americans spent close to $800 million on the holiday centerpiece. Among the most popular varieties on sale at the nation's 22,000 tree farms are the White spruce and the Colorado Blue, the Balsam, Douglas and Fraser firs, and the Scotch and Eastern White pines.

Bob Girardin features 68 more unusual species, giving him one of the country's largest collections of exotic conifers. Because all of the 400 Christmas trees he has ready for harvest this year have already been sold, he knows he is onto something. "I have a niche market," he explains. "I have something nobody else has. A lot of people came to this farm because they got a great experience. I mean, you sell an experience, you don't sell a tree. You can get a tree anywhere."

Mr. Girardin points to some bluish-green foliage. "That's Serbian spruce from Serbia," he says. "See the blue on the underside, green on the top? This is what people in Bosnia and Serbia have in their house at Christmastime."

Some trees at Willow Pond Farm have long, glossy needles. Others look as if they have been dusted white. A few varieties are even striped on the underside. And then there is the scent. It is classic Christmas tree… but stronger. Some species, such as the Grand fir and the Concolor fir, even smell of citrus.

When he is not raising and selling his trees, Bob Girardin is promoting them. He writes about exotic conifers for Christmas tree industry publications and works with agricultural researchers around the country.

Mr. Girardin's trees cost just slightly more than the average one available at a street corner stand…but he says his customers don't mind paying more. "It's because they're so beautiful," he explains. "They are better than anything else they had before. So it's not only because it's something new, it's a better product."

Down the road, his competition agrees. "If you could put 10 different trees side by side, you'd pick his exotics every time," says Dave Rotinnelli, who runs Apple Tree Nursery. "They're outstanding. The guy really knows his stuff."

Mr. Rotinnelli sells mostly traditional Christmas trees. But some of his customers, too, are looking for something more unusual. "I've got one woman who comes in," he says. "Her tree has to be exactly 12 feet tall, seven feet wide, has to be a Fralsam [a hybrid of Fraser and Balsam fir]. She's nuts about Christmas. It's more to her than just put the tree up, put a few presents under it, and take it down before she gets any needles on the floor. She's excited about it. So these people are out there."

Some exotic plants, once they've taken root in U.S. soil, have taken over native species. But plant biologists say the Japanese Vetch fir will never cross-pollinate with the Serbian spruce to create a Japanerbian Spretch that could spell the end of the Balsam fir. Christmas trees are usually harvested before they reach maturity and have the ability to reproduce. Also, because Bob Girardin grows his trees from seed, the danger of introducing pests is low.

So are these exotics the next big thing? Down the road at another nursery, a woman shopping for a Scotch pine says no. "I don't think it'll catch on around here," she remarks with a laugh. "Maybe in New York City. But I don't think in rural New Hampshire that you'll see a lot of exotic trees for sale, unless people are coming from out of state."

Bob Girardin knows what he's up against, trying to sell fancy trees in an area that's home to the traditional American Christmas. But he believes there is room for new traditions from far-off places, and he's determined to introduce them, one Christmas tree at a time.