A decorated Christmas tree is the most beloved and well known of holiday symbols. Think back on all those warm memories centered around your childhood Christmas trees. The tradition of a holiday tree has been around since ancient times and has played an important part in celebrations for centuries beginning with the Romans who decorated trees to celebrate Saturnalia (a Roman holiday that honored the winter solstice) and the Druids of ancient England and France who decorated trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvest. Since then the joy and rich traditions of the season have been enhanced with decorated Christmas trees.
The evergreen tree has become so important in our observance of Christmas that we Americans enjoy more than 23 million evergreen trees annually, with 98 percent of all those trees being grown on tree farms. Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska. Oregon leads the pack as a producer of over 8 million Christmas trees annually. This renewable crop is replanted each year, and as with any green plant, Christmas tree plantations produce oxygen when the plants are growing and serve as shelters for many types of birds and small animals.
Some folks opt for the ease of a plastic tree, but it takes petroleum to produce plastic and that's something we don't seem to have enough of here in the states. Besides, buying a tree in a box and dragging it in from the attic or basement isn't half as much fun as cutting your own or selecting one at a tree lot. An artificial tree lasts an average of 6 years in the home before it is discarded for another, but it last centuries in the landfill.
To get the freshest real tree, buy early or cut one yourself. The Forest Service has designated tree-cutting areas; give them a call. There are also a few U-cut Christmas tree operations here in the Treasure Valley.
Pre-cut trees displayed in tree lots are the most common way to find a holiday evergreen. Buy from local growers if you can; their trees haven't been stored for long periods of time or shipped long distances. To determine freshness in a cut tree, look at its overall appearance. Christmas trees are baled to protect the branches from damage during shipping, but are usually unwrapped for display. Branch tips and the upper third of the tree will stay greener longer than the lower portion of the tree, so pay close attention to the lower two thirds. Are the needles green, plump and flexible? When a tree begins to dry out, the needles fall off more easily. A simple test is to bump the butt end of the tree once against the pavement. If lots of green needles shatter off, it's dry. If only a few green needles fall off, that's ok.
Fragrance can be an indicator of freshness, but fir trees naturally smell more than other species. The weight of a tree and the thickness of its branches are also good indicators of freshness. That makes sense because thick branches hold more moisture than spindly ones and the more moisture a tree has in it, the heavier it will feel.
Once you've selected your green-needled pride, take it home and put it in a bucket of water until you're ready to put it in the tree stand. Cut trees use up a lot of water. In the first week inside a home, an evergreen tree can absorb as much as a quart of water per day! Saw off one inch of trunk before placing the tree in water, that will help it absorb more. Just think of a cut tree like you would a bouquet of cut flowers. Refill the water basin daily and don't allow the water to recede past the trunk cut. If that happens, the cut end will seal closed and water will no longer be picked up.
Keep the tree away from heat sources such as heat registers and the television set. Trees look grand with colored lights as decorations but shut tree lights off before leaving home or going to bed. Lower the temperature a few degrees at night in the room where the tree is kept to keep it fresher longer.
The best selling trees are pines and firs. I seek out Noble firs because they smell great and hold their needles indefinitely--even months after the tree has been moved outside for the birds to play in! Nobles have plenty of open space between branch whorls for ornaments and garlands. The Noble fir reminds me of a lost yet magical childhood, when I use to sit beneath the shimmering family Christmas tree squinting up at the soft blur of lights. That was before anyone knew I needed glasses. Try it sometime. If you're eyesight is good, squint at your decorated tree some night with all the lights in the house off. Trust me, it looks better that way.
Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.