Bouncing in the passenger seat as Phyllis McPherson navigates her black Ford pickup across ruts and half-buried boulders at McPherson Evergreens, a Christmas tree farm tucked between a rumple of hills in the Ellsworth countryside, I am overcome with a season’s epiphany: I need to find the right Christmas tree. My personal tree. Maybe the blue spruce I’ve been hung up on for years isn’t really the one for me? The urge jogged to the surface moments ago—as Phyllis began pointing out the intimate traits of the boughs and needles that screeched against the side of the truck and flopped inside the open window.

I should have known it would come to this. Down in the driveway, beside Phyllis and Gordon McPherson’s white-and-red-trimmed farmhouse, lush, full-bodied white pines waved to me with their long, soft needles, and tall, tapered blue spruce dared me to give them one more chance. But Phyllis and I were off to wend through 17 evergreen-covered acres planted with the exotic: a lustily rotund Serbian spruce that begged to wrap me in a big Balkan hug. The weird: a Spartan spruce—a sort of test-tube blue-and-white spruce, grafted by Michigan State University scientists. (“It’s mostly a landscape tree,” Phyllis told me. “But we’ll sell any of them as Christmas trees if folks want ’em.”) And the everyman’s Christmas trees: Fraser, concolor, Douglas and balsam firs; Black Hills and Colorado spruces; Scotch pine.

But up close, even these trees have their own personalities. Especially with Phyllis’s running commentary. Thanks to this elfin-faced grandmother with her short-cropped brown hair, I now know that spruce and pine needles grow all the way around the branch, while fir needles tend to grow upward, and that the pinecones on mature firs point upward, while pine and spruce pinecones hang down. I know, too, that generally firs have the softest needles (but that white pine needles are the softest of all), and spruce needles are the sharpest.

Photo(s) by Henrik Sorensen/Stone