Sterling Douglas loads balsam fir tips that will be used for Christmas wreaths. Unseasonably warm fall temperatures has pushed back the annual fir tip harvest in parts of the state this year. Credit: Courtesy of Pam Douglas.

The short season for wreath makers in Maine has become even smaller this year.

In a normal year, the season for harvesting the tips of balsam fir branches — the popular and aromatic greenery used to make holiday wreaths — starts around Nov. 1, and provides a short window for wreath makers to produce the thousands of wreaths sold every year in time for Christmas.

This year, unseasonably warm weather has delayed that season by at least a week.

Holiday wreaths are the latest item to be affected by this fall’s unusual weather, joining fruit producing trees and bushes experiencing delayed dormancy, more pesky multicolored lady beetles invading homes and rodents or small mammals staying active longer into the fall, and forcing wreath makers to scramble to search for quality balsam fir tips.

The tips of balsam fir branches can only be harvested after there have been at least three nights in a row where temperatures have dropped to below 20-degrees fahrenheit, according to the Maine Christmas Tree Association.

That season, referred to as tipping season, typically begins after Nov. 1.

Waiting for the balsam fir to experience three nights in a row of cold allows the tree to enter winter dormancy and it stops growing. Harvesting tips before that happens risks all the needles falling off the branches in a very short time.

But this year’s tipping season was delayed after a string of 70-degree days in early November wreaked havoc on nature’s timeline. It’s created a problem for wreath makers this year, according to Michael Leman, co-owner of Harbor Farm Wreaths in Ellsworth.

“We had to start a little bit later than normal this year,” Leman said. “But we can only start so late because we have a schedule and customers expecting to get their wreaths on time.”

Leman said things at Harbor Farm were pushed back about a week, but he does not anticipate any difficulties meeting demand.

Pam Douglas, who owns and operates Pam’s Wreaths in Harpswell with her son Sterling Douglas, had to travel more than 200 miles north to Aroostook County to find tips at the start of the season that had gotten the required three freezing nights.

“The fall was not good,” Pam Douglas said. “You have to have those three nights in a row of frost before the tips are set [and] if you don’t, the needles just fall off.”

Temperatures around Maine were in the 60s just a week ago in the Bangor area. In Portland it got up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit last week but had dropped down into the low 30s and high 20s by the start of this week.

Bangor also was more seasonably appropriate this week, with temperatures down into the 20s.

“It’s been hard on us,” Pam Douglas said. “We are normally so busy because you have about a three-week window for making the wreaths people want for decorations and for people who ordered back last summer for the holidays.”

The cooling temperatures do mean Pam Douglas and her family can now gather tips closer to home.

“We were able to go far to get some so we are going to be okay,” she said. “But for the people who can’t do that, it makes it hard.”

Douglas hopes this past fall is a one-time occurrence and not a new trend due to climate change.

“It’s been weird,” she said. “It’s cold now, but last week we were all in here working with flip-flops on.”

For Leman, even with waiting a week he ended up with balsam fir tips he could not use.

“We delayed as much as we could,” he said. “But some of the wreaths we did make we had to throw out because they did not have the quality we want.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.