When it comes to choosing a Christmas tree, people often make their pick based on size and shape -or, if you're Charlie Brown, because a forlorn one needs a home.
But when was the last time you chose a tree based on what kind it was?
Telling a pine from a fir from a spruce can make for a fun seasonal science lesson, even if it doesn't really matter which of the evergreen family you bring home.
The coniferous, or cone-bearing, trees decorating living-rooms in December are evergreens - meaning they usually keep their needles all winter. That's a good thing, because those needles are the best way to tell what kind of tree is hosting your star.
Although needles may all look the same -long, green, pointy-they actually vary from tree to tree. Pines have long needles in clumps of two to five. Spruce needles are short and square and will roll between your fingers, while fir needles are short and flat and are arranged in rows on either side of the twig.
So, if you select the Scotch pine, the most popular Christmas tree, you'll likely have a tree with dark-green needles in small clumps that will smell good through the new year. (Smell and color are other ways to distinguish trees.)
Or you could choose the white pine. Some people think this large tree (once used for making ship masts) is the most beautiful of the Christmas varieties. But there's a catch: It has no smell, and the bunches of five blue-green needles are soft - not so good for hanging ornaments.
The white spruce will keep your ornaments in place, but the smell of its needles when crushed will quickly dampen your holiday cheer. The Douglas fir, on the other hand, has sweet-smelling crushed needles.
To learn more, visit a Christmas tree lot, where growers will sometimes provide samples to families or teachers. Or use the Internet to find Web sites (see story, above) that will help identify Christmas trees and other of the more than 600 conifers.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society