In the Garden: Thoughts on Christmas Trees

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Editor’s Note: Last December’s In the Garden column covered how to take care of your cut Christmas tree)

By Charles Kidder

As a kid back in the fifties, we chose our Christmas tree from a nursery in the New York City suburbs where we lived. Back then I wouldn’t have known a fig from a fir; still, recalling its wonderful fragrance, I’d bet we picked one of these conifers from the far North.

I also recall that the trees of my youth were much sparser than those found on today’s tree lots. I would guess that those more open firs were cut from the woods up in Maine or perhaps in the Canadian Maritimes. Today, farm-raised trees are neatly sheared. I have no idea why we have gone over to more “perfect” Christmas trees, especially since it requires extra labor and can make it more difficult to hang the ornaments. In fact, I read that in Europe they still prefer the more open natural look, partly to allow room for placing candles. (Does anyone still use candles on trees?!)

Christmas tree farming really hadn’t taken hold in my youth, and artificial trees were rather crude affairs made of surplus bottle brushes. (Or according to some sources, toilet bowl brushes. Presumably not recycled…) Today, artificial trees are much more natural-looking and more widely sold, but the trend might be reversing. In 2001, 7.3 million artificial trees were sold, and by 2007 that number had risen to 17.4 million. Yet, in 2010, the number had plummeted to 8.2 million. Was this due to the general economic downturn or just a saturation of the market? After all, an artificial tree should last several years. From 2007 to 2010, the number of natural trees sold also declined, but much less dramatically, from 31.3 million to 27 million.

There are arguments to be made for buying both artificial and natural trees. Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association said, “Our members have been urging consumers to choose the Christmas tree that best suits their lifestyle, be it real or artificial.” Grammatical errors aside, I’d like to think I have a real lifestyle. But which choice of tree is actually more “green”?

With an artificial tree, you buy it just once, or at least only buy a new one after many years. But the tree is made of plastic, which in turn is made of oil. The overwhelming likelihood is that the tree came from China after a journey of several thousand miles, also courtesy of more oil. Once the tree becomes unusable, I am not aware of any way to recycle it. There is a slight advantage that each year you don’t have to drive somewhere to buy a new tree, and no fossil fuels were consumed bringing a tree to your local tree lot.

Since most natural trees are now farmed, we no longer have to worry about depleting our forests. Or do we? Presumably, any tree farm is taking up the space that would have been occupied by our native woods; on the other hand, it also could be replacing a corn field. Either way, we now have a monoculture, a lack of plant diversity that may also lead to lower diversity of fauna. That said, I think this is apt to be more of a real problem in the vast Christmas tree plantations of the Pacific Northwest. In the East, small patches of Christmas trees might actually provide good habitat for wildlife when surrounded by native vegetation.

Perhaps more worrisome is the use of chemicals in raising Christmas trees. As with any crop, excess fertilization can get into waterways. Weeds between the rows of trees are often controlled by herbicides; noxious insecticides are used to knock out the critters that feed on the trees. In theory, these are all gone by the time the tree reaches market. Or so we hope. We don’t eat Christmas trees, of course, but kids will be handling them. If you find this worrisome, you might want to talk to the tree farmer about his horticultural practices. Some farmers actually employ organic methods, but don’t bother to go through the official certification; my search revealed that Village Gardens in Appomattox County fits that description. There are probably many others doing the same.

Christmas trees appear to have originated in Germany, perhaps an outgrowth of ancient pagan traditions of having something green and “alive” in your home during the dark and cold of winter. The custom spread west to England with the arrival of Prince Albert and to the U.S. with German immigrants. And what about Christmas trees in other cultures?  As you head south, especially into the summer of the Southern Hemisphere, bringing life and greenery into the home is not an issue. When I was in Chile last December, I was told that everybody has an artificial tree. Since the landscape is lush and covered with flowers, just a “tree” with some bright lights suffices to celebrate the holiday. Nevertheless, in Australia and New Zealand, Monterey Pines (Pinus radiata) are grown for a variety of purposes, including natural Christmas trees. Somewhat ironically, a species that is rare and threatened in its native California has now become an invasive weed in the Southern Hemisphere.

Remember to keep your Christmas tree well-watered and the strings of lights in good condition and turned off when you leave the house or go to bed. Enjoy your Christmas, and recycle the tree when the holidays are over!