Where Europe’s best Christmas trees begin

Each Christmas, millions of people around Europe gather around a Nordmann fir – a strong and beautiful type of evergreen that gained popularity for its softer needles and ability to sustain weeks without water. But few know its origin story.

Now grown in Western and Northern Europe, the Nordmann fir is originally from the Caucuses, where the trees can reach heights of 50 meters, or 164 feet. In Racha, Georgia, locals pride themselves in having the trees with the best genetic properties. Each year, around September, they harvest the trees’ pine cones -- extracting the seeds that will grow, usually in around 10 years, into the Christmas trees we know.

A group of pickers rest after working on a part of the forest.

The harvest is light this year so pickers use the downtime to test new safety equipment. Foreign companies have put a strong emphasis on this equipment for years but pickers sometimes prefer to work without it.

A picker is harvesting pine cones.

The seeds are located inside each pine cone.

French photographer Julien Pebrel witnessed this year’s harvest. The work is difficult, he said, with men often having to climb to the top of the trees to get the best cones. Each pound of seeds, which are found inside the cones, sells for just 25 cents - not enough to make a living. Yet, for many families, it’s one way to make extra income, said Pebrel, who received support from journalismfund.eu for this project.

This year’s harvest was deemed catastrophic, mostly due to a late frost that killed the cone buds. The companies aren’t worried, though, as they keep reserves for years like this one. Pickers, on the other hand, are feeling the squeeze. Some of them didn’t climb any trees this season.

Lasha, a harvester who still lives with his parents, goes on a scouting mission in search of accessible places with plenty of pine cones.

Lasha climbs up a small tree to check the quality of the pine cones.

The best Nordmann seeds can be found in the Tlughi Forest. Some pickers believe a fire that occurred a century ago is responsible, with the forest being considered "young."

Today, pickers are mostly men, but one woman fondly remembers how it was when she was a girl. Entire families would take part in the ritual, said Lamara, who was quoted by Pebrel with only her first name.

“They shared a stronger link with nature,” said Pebrel. “But that has disappeared and cone picking is now seen as just another economy.”

Lamara spent years working as a picker. She talks with nostalgia of a time when she would work with her whole family.

A house in the village of Tlughi.

As in many Georgian villages, the rural exodus is strong. Work opportunities are scarce.

A group of pickers leaves after working an area of the forest.

Bags of pine cones are left around the forest for other employees to pick them up.

The cones are then processed to extract the seeds.

Seeds are extracted from the pine cones.

A tree in the Tlughi forest.