City Guides » Green

Keeping Christmas Real

Avoiding the fakes


A decorated Christmas tree is the most beloved and well known of holiday symbols. The tradition of decorating a holiday tree has been around since ancient times. These revered evergreens are so important to us during the holiday season that we purchase more than 30 million real Christmas trees annually. So why is it that some environmentally sensitive folks opt for a fake plastic tree made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource? The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used to make most artificial trees just happens to be a substance boycotted by most environmental groups. The potential for lead poisoning from the metal in fabricated trees is why they carry a warning label. What's more, in 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered yet another problem with artificial trees: bugs. Trees from China (where 85 percent of them are produced) were quarantined because the wooden center pole had a potentially harmful beetle in the wood. To top it off, the average "life" of these giant non-biodegradable toilet brushes is only six to nine years before they're pitched into some landfill where they remain for centuries. (Plastic trees were actually invented by the Addis Brush Company, a company who made toilet bowl brushes.)

So tell me again, why it is you think you need an artificial tree? When I ask people this question I usually get some lame answer having to do with the inconvenience of cleaning up needles or the trouble of selecting a real tree. I would think buying a tree in a box (or dragging the box in from the attic or basement) isn't half as much fun as cutting your own tree in the fresh outdoors or selecting one from a tree lot. If you're really concerned about Christmas tradition--and aren't just flapping your jaw about saving the environment--you'd support Christmas tree farms. Ninety-eight percent of holiday trees are grown on tree farms. They're a renewable crop that's replanted after harvest. These healthy blocks of evergreens support life as they grow by taking in carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen and carbohydrates. Every acre on which Christmas trees grow produces enough oxygen for 18 people. Nearly 500,000 acres of Christmas tree farms exist in the United States. You do the math. Trees also stabilize soil and thus protect watersheds. They provide refuge for wildlife, nesting sites and food for birds, and create scenic green belts. And finally, real evergreen trees are biodegradable and can easily be recycled into mulch.

What artificial people who pooh pooh real Christmas trees don't realize, is that the best choice has always been the traditional, natural choice: a real tree. To get the freshest tree, buy early or cut one yourself. Idahoans can cut a Christmas tree from designated areas in the Boise and Payette national forests. Contact ranger districts for information on tags and allowed farming areas. A few U-cut Christmas tree farms also operate in the Treasure Valley. If you're buying a pre-cut tree, purchase from local growers, as their trees haven't been stored for long periods or shipped long distances.

When selecting a tree, try a freshness test. A green needle breaks crisply when bent, much like a fresh carrot. Pines are the exception. Because of the fibrous nature of their needles, they just bend. Check out the overall appearance of the tree. Christmas trees are often baled to protect the branches from damage during shipping, but usually they're unwrapped for display. Branch tips and the upper third of the tree will stay green longer than the lower portion of the tree, so pay close attention to the lower two-thirds.

Three great varieties of Christmans trees are noble fir, Douglas fir and Scotch pine. Noble fir (Abies procera) has long been considered an excellent holiday tree because of its beauty, stiff well-spaced branch whorls and long holding needles.

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has been the major Christmas tree species used in the Pacific Northwest since the 1920s. It is sheared during its life to produce a dense, thick pyramid.

Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), another sheared tree, is probably the most commonly used Christmas tree in the United States. Like the noble fir, Scotch pine has excellent needle retention and resists drying. With all holiday trees, fragrance can also be an indicator of freshness. And fragrance is indeed a big bonus when buying a real tree. What conjures up the holidays more than the rich perfume of pine and balsam?

Once you've selected your green-needled pride, take it home, saw an inch off the bottom to allow the plant to pick up water and then treat your giant bouquet like a vase of cut flowers. Refill the water basin daily. Then sit back and enjoy the splendor of one of nature's greatest gifts--a beautiful evergreen tree sitting in one of the strangest places--inside your house. As for those pesky needles, simply take the precaution of keeping the tree away from drying heat sources (like heat vents and the television). Spreading a sheet or two under the tree during decorating and dismantling will catch most of the needles shed. Another way to minimize needle drop is to wrap the tree in an old sheet when taking it out, or better yet, cut the widest branches off with a lopper to minimize drag on the door frame.

However, your biggest problem isn't the needles that drop from your tree, it's those cheap wire ornament hooks that slide off branches, smashing your best ornaments and snagging in the carpet. Now there's something worth boycotting.