HATLEY – When Gov. Ronnie Musgrove welcomes guests to the executive mansion during this year’s Yuletide, they will also be welcomed by twin nine-foot-tall Leyland cypresses grown by David and Vera Gray of Monroe County.
Gray’s Christmas Tree Farm earned the honor by having the state and overall Grand Champion in a competition at the Mississippi-Louisiana Christmas Tree Association’s annual meeting this year.
“It’s traditional for the winner to donate a tree for the Governor’s Mansion,” said Cora Gee, mansion administrator, adding that the Grays offered a matched pair. “They’re going to be used in the front foyer of the Governor’s Mansion. When visitors walk into the historic area of the mansion, these trees will be the first thing they see on either side.”
The trees will be highlighted in the historic home’s Christmas tours, which feature traditional holiday decorations using seasonal greenery and fruits.
Leyland cypress is a hybrid that has become a perennial winner in such competitions and is quickly becoming the fresh Christmas tree of choice in the South.
“It’s a pretty tree, it’s allergy-free and it keeps well,” said David Gray. “We had one we cut and kept in a stand in our basement for six weeks and a half last summer. We took it out and put eight sheets of newspaper under it and lit them. The fire came up through the branches, but the tree wouldn’t burn.” The Grays also grow the traditional Virginia pine, Carolina Sapphire and Berki cedar.
This was the Grays’ second time to win the two-state competition – and their second try.
“If the meeting is somewhere a long way off like Lafayette, Louisiana, I don’t enter the competition,” David Gray said. “It’s too far to carry them, and it’s in September so it’s usually still hot.” This year, though, the Grays hosted the annual meeting at their farm.
Christmas tree farming is a full-time enterprise for the Grays.
“Most people think you just set them out and then come back and cut them a few years later, but we work in the trees all year,” said Vera Gray. With all the work required by planting, mowing, insect and weed control, shaping and harvest, she said, “February is the only month you won’t find us out here that much.”