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Finding the Perfect Christmas Tree

Categorized: Healthy Families, Families, Community Development, Communities, Gardens, Trees & Forests

BROOKINGS, S.D. - Thanksgiving marks the start of the Christmas tree season with more than 36 million trees being sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas. While you're hunting for the perfect tree to grace your family's home, John Ball, Professor & SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist and S.D. Dept. of Agriculture Forest Health Specialist is here to help answer some questions.

Real or Plastic:

While artificial trees enjoyed increased sales during the past decade, those sales have stagnated to about 50 million homes using them. "A traditional Christmas tree can be the environmental friendly way to celebrate the holidays," said Ball.

He explained that the average artificial Christmas tree may have a life span of six years before it ends up in a landfill. "The traditional Christmas tree, while used only one season, can become valuable mulch, a winter bird feeder or even used as a fish habitat after the holidays," he said.

If you take his advice and go with a live tree, here are some tips he offers on picking out the perfect tree. 

  1. The way to obtain the freshest tree is to harvest it yourself at a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm. This way you are guaranteed a "fresh" tree rather than one that may have been harvested several weeks earlier.
  2. If cutting your own tree is not possible, here are some ways to check for freshness at a Christmas tree sales lot. First, give the tree a light but vigorous shake. Only a few interior needles should fall out of the tree if it is fresh. If a pile of brown needles appears on the ground after shaking, it is not a fresh tree.
  3. Next, reach into a branch and pull the needles gently through your hand as you move out towards the tip. The needles should bend, not break, as your fingers run across them and the branch should only slightly bend. If they break off completely this is another indicator that the tree has already dried out too much.

Keep it fresh

Regardless of whether you buy a tree from a lot or cut it yourself, Ball said once you get the tree home, leave it outside in the shade while you set the stand up. "The choice of a stand is probably the most critical factor in maintaining the freshness of the tree once in the home," Ball said.

The stand should be able to hold one-half to one-gallon of water as the new Christmas tree may absorb this much water from the stand on the first day. "A good rule-of-thumb is a tree will use 1 quart of water per day for every inch trunk diameter at the base. If you have a tree with a 3-inch base, it may use 3 quarts of water per day," he said.

Just before you bring the tree in the house cut the base between a half and one-inch from the bottom. "This will open the sap-filled pores responsible for transporting water and allows water to be absorbed into the tree," he said. "The base cut does not have to be slanted; the angle makes little difference in the amount of water absorbed so cutting perpendicular to the trunk is best."

Ball said not to drill holes into the trunk or whittle the trunk smaller as neither will improve water uptake. Also, he said to brush off any debris or dirt on the base before placing it in the stand.

Never let your stand run dry

Once the tree is in the stand, add water and then never let the stand become empty. Ball said that if the stand becomes empty for more than six hours, the tree's pores plug up again. Water uptake will be significantly reduced, the tree will dry out and the needles will soon begin to fall.

"If the tree stand does dry up for half a day or more there is nothing that can be done other than pull the tree out of the stand and recut the base - not a pleasant task once the lights and ornaments are already up," he said.

Nothing needs to be added to the water in the stand to improve needle retention. The commercial "tree fresher" products do not significantly increase the life of the tree and the home remedies such as aspirin, sugar, soft drinks and vodka do not work and may be harmful to pets that may drink from the stand.

Place the tree in a spot that receives only indirect light from the windows and not near any heat duct, as Ball said this will reduce water loss from the tree and prolong its freshness.
Another tip he shared to prolonging freshness is to start out with a clean stand.

"Before setting up the tree wash the stand out with a solution of about a capful of bleach to a cup of water, to reduce the growth of microorganisms that may also plug up the tree's pores," he said.

Which is the best tree?

Each species has its good points but the Fraser fir, is probably one of the top favorites, Ball said. "The tree has a very pleasant scent, excellent needle retention - they will last the entire holiday season - and the branches are stiff enough to hold most ornaments," he said. "The bright green needles are white on the underside and this makes a very attractive display."

However, if heavy ornaments are desired, Ball said to go with a spruce.

Balsam fir is another good choice, said Ball, though the needles do not last as long and the branches are not quite as stiff. 

Canaan fir, another popular fir which appears to have qualities similar to Frasier fir is also becoming a popular Christmas tree.

Ball said that pines are very popular, with Scotch pine probably being the most popular tree in the country. "It also has a pleasant scent, excellent needle retention and the branches are stiff enough to hold heavy ornaments," he said.

White pine is another pine commonly sold at Christmas tree stand.  Ball explained that the needle retention is not quite as long as Scotch pine and the branches are very flexible meaning heavy ornaments may fall off. White pines do have very soft needles and if you are going to run into the tree in the middle of the night this is the one!

Spruces are not as popular a choice for Christmas trees, Ball said this is primarily due to their relatively poor needle retention. "If you want to have a blue spruce as your Christmas tree, you probably should wait until a couple of weeks before Christmas to set it up as the needles may only last that long," he said.

He added that once the needles begin to fall, blue spruce are about the worst tree in the house as the fallen needles are sharp and seem to find their way into socks and slippers.

Blue spruce has the best needle retention of all spruces. "They may last a few weeks or more - but does not have much of a fragrance," he said. "The branches are very stiff, however, and can support the heaviest ornaments."

White spruce, or Black Hills spruce is not a commonly available Christmas tree at lots, however Ball said it is used in the Black Hills where it can be cut from the National Forest.

"It does make a nice tree, particularly when cut fresh, as needle retention is poor. The tree also does not have much of a fragrance and occasionally Black Hills spruce trees can produce a slight musky odor," he explained.

Photo courtesy of iGrow.

Photo courtesy of iGrow. Fraser Fir

Photo courtesy of iGrow. Just before you bring the tree in the house cut the base between a half and one-inch from the bottom.  

Photo courtesy of iGrow. Scotch pine

Photo courtesy of iGrow. Black Hills spruce

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