Fresh-cut trees are sold almost everywhere at holiday time – from seasonal tree lots to supermarkets.
Rural areas near urban centers often have tree farms where you can cut your own tree – a fun outing to take during the holidays that will connect you and your family with the tree in it’s natural environment and the family who grew it. Purchasing from a local tree farm supports your local economy and allows you to choose a species of tree that flourishes in your local bioregion. You can also meet the growers and talk to them about their growing methods.
To forego a holiday tree for the sake of preserving our natural forests is not necessary. Until fairly recently, all Christmas trees came from the forest, but this is no longer true. Of the approximately 35 million Christmas trees that are sold each year, 95 percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms.
The environmental effect of fresh-cut holiday trees is actually beneficial. Over one million acres of land have been planted in Christmas trees, and over 100,000 people are employed growing them, mostly on family farms. Though some of these trees are harvested each year, their value as a commercial crop adds this acreage to the total amount of forested land on the Earth. For every fresh-cut tree harvested, three seedlings are planted in its place and about ten others are still being grown on farms to prepare for the next ten harvest seasons.
One organic grower reports that in addition to generating income, Christmas trees are a pleasure to grow. In her organic tree plantation, several species of birds have taken up residence in their trees and in the grasses that grow between the trees. The soil in the abandoned field in which she is growing her trees is improving every year, as it is being maintained as an agricultural area. The plantation provides a place of scenic beauty, a place for picnics in spring, summer and fall, and a place for wildlife. Because they sell on a cut-your-own basis, the growers see many of their friends and neighbors when they come for trees.
SAFE SPECIES FOR FRESH CUT TREES
Certain kinds of Christmas trees contain natural substances that can be harmful even to those in good health.
Six species account for about 90 percent of the holiday tree trade. Scotch pine is most popular, with about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir which accounts for about 35 percent. The other common species are noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce. Different species predominate in different parts of the country.
Of these species, the varieties of pine are the most problematic. Pine contains resins and other aromatic chemicals that have natural insecticidal and bactericidal properties that can kill insects and the bacteria that cause odor.
In this case, however, “natural” does not mean safe. These same chemicals can also damage the respiratory tract, causing chronic respiratory disease, and asthma. So if anyone in your family has increased asthma in the wintertime, it could be your Christmas tree.
The safer choice would be a natural fir or spruce tree, as they do not contain these irritating chemicals. While it was easy to find literature on the dangers of pine, I was able to find nothing on the health effects of exposure to fir or spruce. I live in a fir forest and the Miwok Indians who used to live here would drink tea made from the fir needles. So I think a fir tree would be safe.
Many years ago I asked Mia Rose, who had a long-time dedication to safe ingredients, about the health effects of spruce and fir. She made a natural holiday air freshener that contains essential oils of these trees. “I could not find any data that showed any negative effects of fir or spruce,” she said. “In fact, they have a positive effect of relieving stress and elevating emotions.”
HOW TO KEEP YOUR FRESH-CUT TREE FRESH
When you bring your tree home, remove any needles lodged among the branches, then care for it as you would cut flowers.
Keep the tree outdoors in a protected area until you are ready to decorate it. Keep the cut end of the trunk submerged in water. Saw a fresh straight cut across the trunk about an inch up from the original cut to open the tree stem for water intake. Then place it in any large container filled with fresh water. If you allow the water level to drop below the fresh cut, a seal will form, just as it does on cut flowers, and a new cut will be necessary. Use hot water the first time to dissolve pitch that may be clogging water conduction tissues.
Use a Christmas tree holder that holds water. If you refill the water on a regular basis, your tree will remain fresh and fire-resistant throughout the season and will not lose its needles.
FRESH TREES DON’T CATCH FIRE
There is some concern that fresh Christmas trees will start fires. A fresh Christmas tree that is well cared for will not catch fire. In fact, I read that there have been reports of house fires where the house burned completely, but the fresh Christmas tree in the house did not even catch fire.
However, it is wise to unplug the tree lights before retiring or leaving home. While the tree is unlikely to burn, overheated lights can start a fire among the paper gift wrapping or curtains.
It is also best not to place your tree next to the fireplace. Again, while a well cared for tree is unlikely to burn, sparks from the fire could ignite the paper wrapping of gifts placed beneath them.
RECYCLE YOUR TREE INTO A BIRD FEEDER
Evergreen trees can be “recycled” in the garden as a to make a protected bird habitat, adding color and interest to the winter garden. The branches provide shelter from strong winds and cold. Attract birds with fruit slices, seed cakes, suet bags, and pine cones smeared with peanut butter and seeds, hung on the trees like ornaments. Make strings of popcorn or cranberries, or strings alternating cranberries with half-inch cubes of beef suet, or apples wedges with raisins and Cheerios. You can hang any leftover Christmas cookies on the tree, too.
Place your tree near a window so you can observe the action. To deter unwanted visitors such as raccoons and squirrels, try mounting your feeder on a pole at least fifteen feet from any overhead branches and at least fifteen feet off the ground. Mount an inverted metal cone just below the feeder.
When spring comes and the tree begins to dry out, it can easily be broken apart or chopped to make mulch and returned to the garden.