There are two things I most love about Christmas – the smell of a real tree in a warm house, and fruitcake. Yes, I confess to being that one person who really loves fruitcake, but that is a story for another day. Today, let’s talk about trees in our homes. In the next two weekends, the majority of Christmas trees destined for homes will be sold.
The tradition of bringing a green tree into the home in winter as a reminder of the renewal of spring greatly predates the Christian tradition of yule trees. The modern tradition probably began in 16th century Germany, but is now worldwide. I was amazed to discover beautiful live trees for sale in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I lived there. They were imported from Australia and served mainly the expat market, but were a great reminder of Christmas back home in Kentucky.
Many homes are now decorated with artificial trees instead of the traditional live, cut tree. Fortunately, there is a resurgence of interest in live farm-grown trees, especially among young adults. In 2010, the ratio of live to artificial trees in the US was 3:1 (Forbes).
Where do Christmas trees come from? There are several sources of live trees available to homeowners. The cost and benefits of each depends on where you live, how much you want to work, and how much you want to spend. Here, in descending order of both time invested and fun, are some choices.
- Find and Cut. Go out in the woods, find a nice small pine, spruce or fir, cut it and take it home. This is the best choice for those who want a family adventure. However, taking a tree from private land might be stealing. You need permission from the owner, and some owners will charge a small fee. If you are fortunate enough to live near a National Forest or State Forest that allows Christmas tree cutting, you can find a fine tree if you are willing to search. National Forests and most State Forests require a permit, costing $5 to $10 per tree. Your local National Forest office will provide permits and may be able to tell you some good places to search for trees. These trees are, of course, not sheared and may not be as full as trees from a farm. Although not certified as organic, these trees have not been sprayed with pesticides.
- Choose and Cut. This can be a great family outing if you are not near a natural forest or your time is limited. You can wander through groves of trees, choose the one that suits your needs, cut it and take it home. These trees have the lowest cost of any farmed trees. They have been sheared for good form and occasionally sprayed with pesticides if needed. Christmas tree growers use as little pesticide as possible, but nearly all trees have been treated sometime during their life, and most farms use herbicide to control weeds. In any case, you are not going to eat the tree. A very small number of farms produce certified organic trees.
- Cut Trees. Cut trees are available directly from farms, but more often are from the many tree lots that spring up at this time of year. These trees often travel hundreds of miles to get to your town. Fir trees, the most desirable Christmas trees, can only be grown in cool, moist places like Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington (National Christmas Tree Association).
- Live B&B trees. A few people bring living balled and burlapped (B&B) trees with their root systems and plant the trees outside after the holidays. This is generally a bad idea. Bringing a tree inside during the dormant season, letting it sit in a warm, dry, low-light environment for a few weeks and then planting it back out into cold soil is not the recipe for good survival. Some people I know have done it with success by minimizing the indoor time and keeping household temperatures low, but it is not easy to get the trees to survive.
The benefits of live vs. artificial trees are many and most are well known. Here are a few:
- Live trees benefit farms and farm families, with over 15,000 farms employing over 100,000 people. Most of the farms are family owned. Many farms produce Christmas trees as a supplement to income from other crops.
- Artificial trees are manufactured from petroleum and metal in China. The principle beneficiaries are the owners of large manufacturing plants. Although there may be some lead in artificial Christmas trees, the amounts are small (except in older trees) and exposure is limited. In California, artificial trees from China are required to carry a warning label about exposure to toxins.
- Live trees benefit soil and store carbon below ground. Trees grow for 8-10 years and, when cut, the root systems decay, adding carbon to soil. Christmas tree farming is low-intensity agriculture, with little soil disturbance and maximum below-ground carbon.
- Live trees can support wildlife after use. Although many trees are ground into mulch, which is useful, a better approach is to let wildlife use the dead tree. At my home, we decorate our trees with cranberries, and, after removing all the other decorations, leave the tree in the back yard for a few weeks. The tree provides cover and the cranberries provide nutrition. Christmas trees can be collected and left in piles to benefit wildlife as well.
Detailed life-cycle analysis of artificial vs natural Christmas trees show varying results, from a finding of little difference in impact, to others suggesting that artificial trees would have to be used for more than 20 years to have the same footprint as natural trees. However, few of these studies adequately capture the below-ground carbon storage benefits of Christmas tree farming.
- Although some people complain about allergies to Christmas trees, it is more likely that mold spores on the tree are the culprit. Spraying the tree with water and letting it dry before bringing it inside will reduce spores. Artificial trees stored in damp environments may also harbor mold spores. And supposed allergies to Christmas trees may just be a coincidence of the fact that respiratory illnesses caused by viruses peak in the winter
This year, make finding your perfect, living Christmas tree an adventure, and do your planet some good. Oh, and keep me in mind if you need to get rid of any homemade fruitcake.