the centerpiece of the American Christmas celebration -- now are arriving in the Washington area and they are in unusually good condition and supply, according to marketing specialists.

Prices generally are about 10 percent higher than last Christmas, they said, with trees costing from about $10 to $100.

"Trees this year are in as good shape as we have ever seen, and they have good color," said George Roche, a marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. He said that the Christmas trees, like vegetables and other crops, have had the benefit this year of exceptionally favorable growing conditions -- "plenty of rain and no terribly hard freezes yet."

As a result, he said, more trees are available and there is a higher proportion of better quality trees.

Now is the time for consumers to buy their trees, just as they are being unloaded from the trucks, Roche advised, "because the longer the trees lie around the lot, the more likely they are to dry out." The tree will retain its freshness, he said, when taken home and stored standing in a bucket of water and away from direct sun and wind.

Roche advised consumers to cut an inch off the stub of the tree before standing it in water. Another inch should be cut off the bottom of the stub when it is ready to be brought inside and placed in a tree stand with fresh water.

The National Christmas Tree Association, a Milwaukee-based trade group, estimates that about one-third of all households decorate with cut Christmas trees each year while about one-third use artificial trees. The other one-third don't have a tree.

Those numbers suggest that the Washington area, which has about 1.2 million households, will trim about 400,000 cut Christmas trees this year. The most popular is the Scotch pine, followed by the Douglas fir and the balsam fir.

Most local tree lot operators opened for business this weekend.

Prices for the trees vary, according to type, size and shape, said Alan Grossberg, nursery manager of Johnson's Flower Center, 4020 Wisconsin Ave. NW. "The Scotch pine are always the cheapest, from $10 to $20 for trees that are 3-to-5 feet tall," he said. "But in the bigger trees, we have the 10-to-12 foot Douglas fir, ranging from $80 to $100."

Grossberg estimated that retail prices at his lot are up about 10 percent from last year.

While some lots, like Johnson's, price each tree individually, some other lots have a one-price policy.

Chambers Flower Center, 1600 Bladensburg Rd. NE, is unloading trees this weekend that will go on sale Monday. "They are all balsam fir, and you can have any size, from 4 foot to 8 foot, for $10.99," said manager Sandy Morse.

He said his price is up about 10 percent, from the $10 that he charged last year.

A similar one-price rule is in effect at Hechinger's, which has cut trees at 22 Washington area stores. "We are carrying balsam fir for $11.99; Scotch pine for $14.99 and Douglas fir for $29.99," said garden buyer Jerry Brase.

Brase said that his Scotch pines are $2 more than last year, when they sold for $12.99. The increase, he said, reflects a higher wholesale cost and increased freight expenses.

But the price for the balsam fir at Hechinger's is actually down $2 from last year's $12.99, Brase said, "because the balsam fir is imported from Canada, and our U.S. dollar buys more in Canadian goods due to the exchange rate."