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Answers to Go with Susan Smith

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Q. I’d like to try a live Christmas tree this year. I’ve seen small Italian stone pines for sale here. Are they likely to survive if planted outside in January?

A . Italian stone pine seedlings are often sold as "tabletop" Christmas trees. The Texas A&M Forest Service “Trees of Texas” webpage also states that these trees can be planted in the urban landscapes of Central, South and West Texas. They grow best with good drainage, but are tolerant of drought, salt and slightly alkaline soils.

The Aggie webpage includes a drawing of an Italian stone pine. They may grow up to 50 feet tall with trunks up to 2 feet in diameter.

These pines lose the classic Christmas tree shape as they mature. Instead, they develop into a tall shade tree with a smooth, rounded crown silhouette which explains their alternate name, the umbrella pine.

Their needles are 5 to 8 inches long. Pine cones take three years to mature. The seeds or “pine nuts” at the base of each scale are edible. Pine nuts, pignolia, are a traditional ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.

If you run into a live Afghan pine Christmas tree, you might want to consider that option. The Afghan pine will also grow well in Central Texas and does retain its Christmas tree shape. The Afghan pine grows well on hot, dry sites with alkaline soils.

However, Afghan pines are susceptible to fungal attacks when overwatered. The pine tip moth may also cause problems.

Apparently, the Italian stone pine does not have these issues, but let’s confirm that by checking another source, “Texas Gardening the Natural Way,” by Howard Garrett. Garrett is an organic gardening expert and host of the “Dirt Doctor” weekly radio show.

When writing about Afghan pines, Garrett also refers to the pine tip moth and root fungal issues. However, for the Italian stone pine, he writes, “Problems few — should be planted more often.”

If you have your heart set on an ornamental “Christmas tree” in your yard, you may be happier with the Afghan pine. If you have a well-watered yard or you tend to worry about pests, you may want to choose the Italian stone pine.

If you find another live Christmas tree option, give us a call and we’ll check to see what Garrett and/or the Aggies have to say about that species.

Note to new to Texas gardeners: late fall and early winter are the best times to plant most trees and shrubs in our area. Your new landscape additions will have a chance to get established before the summer heat hits them. We have a wide selection of books that will help you choose suitable plants and supply tips for successful Central Texas gardening.

San Marcos Record

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