According to the National Christmas Tree Association (www.realchristmastrees.org), 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year. Of those with real trees, about three out of four bought them at retail outlets, the others cut their own at a tree farm—a trend that has been increasing in recent years. If you get a tree, either way, this year, follow a few tips in choosing and care for longest life and safety inside. You may have a choice of several tree species.
Spruce trees have single needles one-third to one inch long, attached to the twigs by peg-like projections. The needle is four-sided. (You can feel the sides by rolling it in your fingers.) Spruce is generally prickly when rubbing the needles, and so, for this reason, are not the first choice of many tree shoppers. You may see Norway, Colorado, or white spruce.
The balsam fir also has single needles, but they aren’t quite as prickly, nor can you roll the needles in your fingers as with spruces. Their dark green needles are flat, and longer than those of the spruce– about three-fourths to one and one-half inches long. Balsam fir is one of the most common and favored choices in the Northeast.
Many growers consider an even better choice than the balsam fir to be the Fraser fir. It is very similar, having a pleasant scent, but branches are a bit more sturdy (better for heavy ornaments), and turn slightly upward. It grows naturally at higher elevations of the Appalachian mountains. You may find another good choice– the Canaan fir—which shares the traits of both Fraser and balsam firs, but may be best considered as a type of balsam fir.
Another species, the Douglas fir, has flat needles of similar length to those of the balsam fir. The buds are pointed on the Douglas fir but rounded on the balsam fir. It is a popular choice in western states.
Most pines have two to five needles bound together at the base by a sheath. The needles are about two to five inches long. White pines often don’t hold their needles as long indoors as some other species, while Scotch Pine is one of the more common choices, especially in the South and the Midwest. Depending on the region of North America, you may find other choices such as eastern red cedar, Black Hills spruce, Ponderosa pine, concolor (white) fir, noble fir, and Korean fir.
Before you even leave home, measure the space your tree will occupy—both height and width. Then take a tape measure with you. Trees always seem to look smaller in the great outdoors than when we get them into our homes! This simple step can save money buying a tree too large, and extra cutting once the tree is inside.
Also, before leaving home pack a blanket or tarp to wrap the tree if you can’t fit it inside your vehicle, as well as enough rope to tie securely to your vehicle. Some tree farms have netting sleeves to slip your trees into, as well as twine. A pair of work gloves is useful, especially if you’ll be cutting your own, as is a hand saw (many tree farms will provide saws).
Those choosing to “cut their own tree” at a tree plantation may save money, as these growers often ask a fixed price for any tree. Sometimes a sleigh ride or coffee and doughnuts at a warming hut are available. Some firms allow you to tag your tree early to cut just before the holidays. Good buys also can be found at retail outlets, though prices are usually higher as someone else has provided the labor and transportation. Shop early for a wider selection of trees, and for fresh trees that will last longer.
How can you easily check for freshness? First, pinch the needles. If they bend rather than break, the tree is fresh. Run your hand along the branches to see if the needles stay on or many fall off. Or bounce the stump end of the tree on the ground. If too many needles fall off, choose another tree. Another way to check for freshness is to feel the base of the tree. If it is sticky with resin, the tree was recently cut and should stand up well throughout the holidays.
Upon getting your tree home, especially if you didn’t cut your own, immediately place the base in a large bucket of warm water. Warm water is absorbed faster than cold. Research has shown that plain tap water is best for trees to last longest. Home concoctions such as bleach, aspirin, lemon-lime soda, and many preservatives actually may shorten tree life.
It is useful to recut a half inch off the base to open up the water vessels in the trunk before putting it into water. One to two inches cut off is not needed as often recommended (unless you need to shorten the tree size), nor is an angled cut. Don’t trim sides off the base of the trunk as that is where the tree takes up its water.
Get a stand that can hold the trunk and your tree size. Use a stand that holds at least a quart of water for small trees, a gallon for large ones, as a freshly cut evergreen can drink that much water each day. Generally, figure on a quart of water for each inch of trunk diameter at the base. So a trunk four inches across ideally should have a stand holding four quarts (gallon) of water.
If your tree doesn’t start “drinking” water right away, and you followed all these tips, it could be because the tree hasn’t adjusted from the outdoors and started to dry out if you cut your own. Or, if precut and fresh, it may not absorb much water until it begins to dry out.
Choose a location away from heat sources (heat vents, radiators, wood stoves, sunny windows) and doorways. Tall trees may need to be secured with wire to walls and ceilings for support. I have a bookcase affixed securely to the wall that I tie my tall trees to.
Be sure to check trees daily and add water as needed. Heated rooms, especially with forced air heat, can dry out trees rapidly. Keep in mind fire hazards of live trees indoors often are overrated by the media. According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, both live and artificial Christmas trees are ignited in only one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of all home fires. Trees that are kept fresh, using these tips, and using electric lights with approved and safe wiring, are very difficult to ignite. The main problem with dry trees is a shorter life with needles dropping. Pick a fresh tree, and keep it fresh, and you’ll get the enjoyment you expect over the holidays.
CHOOSING AND CARE OF CHRISTMAS TREES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont