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Christmas tree shoppers have more choices this holiday season

Growing up in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, Cami Onolfo and her grandfather traipsed off into the woods every December to chop down their own tree. Even the coldest winters when the temperature dropped to 40 below, they walked through the forest until they found the perfect tree and hauled it back home.

Now in her 13th Christmas in mild Miami Beach, this year Onolfo paid $120 for a premium grade 7-foot fraser fir at the Oh Christmas Tree tent on Biscayne Boulevard.

“I knew exactly what kind of tree I wanted since I used to cut it myself,” Onolfo said. “I’m the one in the family that’s Christmas crazy.”

As the teenage tree handler tied her tree on top of her Hummer, Onolfo said she would dress the whole family in red later that night and decorate the tree, drinking hot chocolate and listening to Christmas carols. It was tradition, she said, a mix of Miami and Romania that anchors her family every year.

For many native Floridians and newcomers alike, the holidays start with the search for the perfect tree from a snowier clime. Local Christmas tree sellers are ready, expecting the first weekend in December to be the busiest of the year. Specialty tents and hardware stores alike are stocked with a variety of trees to give consumers lots of choices to find the perfect tree.

“It’s such an emotional buy,” said Sam Fahmie who works with his brother Johnny to run the Oh Christmas Tree tent that grew out of his father’s produce business. “People put more thought into this decision than they do when they buy a car.”

Oh Christmas Tree sells everything from a 3-footer for $30, perfect for an art deco apartment, to the 20-foot tree Lil’ Wayne bought last week. They deal mostly in fraser firs, but also offer the heartier blue spruce and leafier scotch pine. Grooming techniques help shape the trees which are graded by the USDA on aesthetics. The “premium” trees are bushier and rounder, while “number one” trees are thinner, “like grandma used to have,” Fahmie said.

“We’ve really begun to note this trend about growers and retailers putting out more variety,” said Rick Dungey, spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association. He said retailers have to know their market to plan their inventory, taking into account home sizes and regional preferences on kinds of trees.

With an early Thanksgiving putting an extra weekend between Turkey Day and Christmas this year, Dungey said he is feeling “a lot of optimism” about business. Retailers are already selling out of trees and scrambling to find growers who can ship quickly. He said across the country, sales were up 14 percent last year, and so far this season is off to an even better start.

At KB’s Real Christmas Trees, the other candy-cane-colored tent on Biscayne Boulevard, Christmas tree connoisseurs have four species to choose from. While most Floridians prefer the fraser firs, a new species, the citrus-scented color cons, have started to be a big hit, said Kevin Burns, former North Miami mayor and KB’s owner.

Burns, who has watched generations of families peruse his Christmas tree lot, said even with all the choices of species and shape, size is still the most important factor. He warned tree shoppers to measure their space before they go pick a tree, because trees often look smaller in a tent than they will in the living room. Take for example, the year decorators in charge of Christmas decorations for baseball player Alex Rodriguez insisted on ordering a 23-foot tree, only to find out the ceilings in his house were 18 feet tall.

“They had to saw 6 feet off the bottom. I told them they could have saved themselves a whole lot of money,” Burns said. “We brought the base back here and gave pieces of it to customers as a cautionary tale.”

Hardware stores and nurseries that get their trees from larger agri-business farms offer less expensive trees, ranging from $30 for a 5-foot douglas fir to $130 for an 11-foot fraser fir. Johnny Fahmie of Oh Christmas Trees said he tries to offer comparable prices because “no one should be priced out of getting a great tree.”

As Fahmie and his workers unloaded a fresh load of firs straight from the mountains of North Carolina, customers milled around, expertly pinching tree branches as if they knew what they were looking for. Rodney Hall, a 27-year-old masseuse, stood gazing up at a beautiful 10-footer. He left to look at other trees, but kept coming back to the first one he saw.

“I like this one,” he said. “It speaks to me.”