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They're the 'tops': Black spruce trees add refreshing winter color

To most people, the natural colors that define winter are the dull white of snow and drab brown of "snirt." But those who long for a touch of Mother Nature's vibrance need not fret.

To most people, the natural colors that define winter are the dull white of snow and drab brown of "snirt."

But those who long for a touch of Mother Nature's vibrance need not fret. With very little green from your wallet, you can surround your home with living greens through the coldest, dreariest months.

Tree tops, also known as spruce tips, are becoming popular throughout the region as organic outdoor ornamentation.

"Any place you might use blooming plants outdoors in the summer, you can fill that spot with tree tops in the winter," said Alma Cater, owner of Country Greenery in Moorhead. "It turns our area from bleak all winter long to warm and welcoming."

Despite the name, spruce tips are actually the full height of black spruce trees, known for their small stature. They grow mostly in cold, wet, marshy areas. The Minnesota Department of Resources reports trees 2 inches in diameter have been found to be 127 years old.


"Essentially, they grow really slowly," says Eric Baker, owner of Baker Nursery Gardens in Fargo. "I've seen some with 6 or 7 (growth) rings that were only 5 feet tall."

Some stores sell regular spruce branches as tree tops. The branch tips are collected after lumber companies harvest.

Tree tops typically come in two sizes: regular (2 to 3 feet tall) and large (4 to 5 feet tall). The smaller tops come in bundles, usually of 10. Tree tops range in price from $3.99 per single small tree to $19.99 for a bundle.

Besides aesthetics, part of the appeal of tree tops is the minimal maintenance required.

Tree tops should be placed in a large pot or window box, then filled with wet dirt. Once the dirt freezes, the tops remain firmly in place and stay green throughout the cold months.

Because they're living, tree tops won't last more than a few weeks if kept inside, even when regularly watered.

Most people arrange their tree tops in large pots or window boxes, with the largest in the center and several shorter trees circled around it. One of Cater's customers "plants" them in the flowerbeds lining her driveway; another arranges them around his business sign. Cater's own home is awash in winter green - she has about 15 different pots filled with tree top arrangements around her deck and front door.

John Shotwell, owner of Fargo's Shotwell Floral Co., says tree top arrangements can be decorated in a variety of ways. For the past two years, Shotwell's has held tree top decorating seminars, which have been well attended.


"You can add dogwood, put lights on them, decorate them with fall garlands, add silk flowers to them - there's any number of things you can do," he says. "Your imagination is the extent of where you want to go with them."

Cater says many people treat their tree tops like miniature Christmas trees.

"During the holiday season, particularly, they add lights," she says. "With days so short all winter long, it's kind of nice to have those little trees lit up."

Or, you can keep it simple.

"You can stick some glitter in there, but most people like the woodsy feel of it," Baker says.

Because they last throughout the winter, tree tops aren't only for the Yuletide season. Cater suggests tree top displays can be accentuated with autumn leaves in the fall, red bows or hearts around Valentine's Day or more green foliage for St. Patrick's Day.

Don't be surprised if holiday visitors are intrigued by your tree top display; in America, black spruces mainly grow only near the Great Lakes, making them unique to our region.

"Out in Bismarck, people have never heard of them," Baker says.


If you're looking to add a tree top display to your decorating repertoire, however, you might want to wait until next winter. Baker's only had small bundles left. Country Greenery sold out in November, weeks after first being offered. All stores say sales have been brisk since they began offering tree tops several years ago.

"Men come in and say, 'My wife sent me in for tree toppers. Can you help?' " laughs Gail Rogne of Baker Nursery Gardens.

Leinen is a reporter at the Park Rapids (Minn.) Enterprise, a Forum Communications Company

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