Cut Christmas trees, the star of the American Christmas celebration, are in better shape and more plentiful than usual -- "the nicest batch we have had in years," reports one enthusiastic tree merchant.

But they generally cost 8 to 20 percent more than last Christmas.

"Prices should be higher, because the cost of doing business for everybody is higher -- the finance cost has skyrocketed and the transportation charges have increased," said George Roche, a marketing specialist in the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

An estimated 400,000 cut trees have been shipped into the Washington area from farms in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. About half have been sold so far, local merchants say.

"There's been a very strong demand for trees this year," said Jerry Brase, garden buyer for Hechinger's, which has Scotch pines and balsam firs at 18 store locations in the Washington area. The price for any one of Hechinger's trees is $12.99 -- up 9 percent over last year's $11.88.

Some tree lots price their trees individually, according to the size, shape and variety.

At Johnson's Flower Center, 4020 Wisconsin Ave. NW, prices range from $10 for a small Scotch pine to $100 for a 15-foot, perfectly shaped Norway spruce. But the typical tree shopper there buys a Douglas fir that stands 6 to 7 feet and costs $30 to $40, according to nursery manager David Hill.

Hill said that Johnson's prices this year are up an average of 12 percent. Some, like the fir which increased from $25 last year to $30 this year, are up 20 percent, while some other trees didn't go up at all, he said.

The price increases have dismayed some shoppers, however.

Malcolm Dodd, 30, who works as a fund-raiser for the Georgetown University alumni association, remembers paying $14 for a "big fat beautiful tree" last year. "But when we went back to the same lot this year, the price for a tree like that was $30," he said.

Dodd drove to a second lot where he found a suitable tree for $25 -- "still nearly twice as much as we paid last year, but a real nice tree," he said.

One exception to the pattern of price increases is the Christmas tree deal at Chambers Flower Center Inc., 1600 Bladensburg Rd. NE, where Canadian balsams sell for $7.99 each. That is the same price as last year. "I had higher fuel costs to truck in the trees , but not higher tree costs," said manager Sandy Morse.

Most cut Christmas trees are sold by area retail stores and by roadside stands operated by independent tree merchants. But a variety of civic and church groups also sell Christmas trees.

In Arlington, for example, the Men's Club at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church has 400 spruce and Scotch pine trees for sale at prices ranging from $13 to $20. Two years ago, when its trees sold for $8.50 to $13, the club made enough money to contribute $1,000 to the church's general fund. "We will make more than that this year," said Custis Burton, president of the club.

Christmas trees owe their better-than-usual appearance this year to the abundance of moisture last summer and to the absence of other problems, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Jane Fvinicki, associate director, put it this way: "No Mount St. Helens with ash falling all over the trees. And no significant disease problem."

However, a few of this year's trees may harbor egg masses of the gypsy moth, a pest that doesn't hurt the Christmas tree but has defoliated millions of acres of hardwood trees in northeastern states.

Virginia agriculture officials this week found moth eggs on 180 trees on eight lots -- less than three percent of the trees for sale on those lots -- in Richmond, Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. Officials said they had not yet checked trees in Northern Virginia.

Officials in Maryland and D.C. said yesterday that they had found no evidence of moth eggs on trees checked in their areas.

But they suggested that anyone buying a Christmas tree examine it for moth eggs. "The egg mass looks like a piece of marble-sized putty that has been flattened out and stuck onto the trunk of the tree or maybe the limbs," said Bill Gimpel, chief of plant protection for Maryland's Department of Agriculture. The egg mass may be light brown or light gray.

Anyone finding an egg mass on a tree should contact his local extension office agent immediately, Gimpel said.

He said the egg mass can be scraped off the tree and dropped into a can of kerosene or bleach. But the scraping must be done with care, he said, or some of the eggs will fall to the ground, setting up the possibility of a new gypsy moth cycle next spring.