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Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Forestry > Publications & Presentations > Christmas Tree Selection Christmas Tree Selection

Real versus Artificial Christmas Trees
Each year when Christmas rolls around, the question is always raised, “Is it environmentally responsible to be cutting a live Christmas tree each year, or better to go with an artificial one?” There are many reasons why real Christmas trees are the more "eco-friendly" choice.

Artificial Christmas trees are made primarily of metals and plastics, all non-renewable resources. The plastic material, typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a potential source of lead. The potential for lead poisoning is considered high enough that California requires a warning label on all artificial trees made in China. (By the way, 85% of artificial trees are made in China.)

On average, an artificial tree is used for 7 years before it is disposed of. So if a tree is displayed for one month per year, that means it will have served as a Christmas tree a total of seven months, and will remain in a landfill indefinitely. Even if it were to be used for 20 holiday seasons, it’s still going to end up in a landfill far longer.

As for real Christmas trees, they are both a renewable and biodegradable natural resource. On average it takes about seven years to raise a Christmas tree to marketable size. During that time, it is absorbing carbon dioxide and filtering the air of particulate matter and releasing oxygen.

It is also providing watershed protection and excellent habitat for songbirds and other wildlife. Christmas trees are planted and raised as a crop by tree farmers; but unlike other row crops, a Christmas tree plantation remains green and growing year-round. If there was no market for real Christmas trees, that land would be used for something else. Also, nationally for Christmas tree that is harvested nationally, two to three seedlings are planted.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF LIVE CHRISTMAS TREES



It's Hard Work Growing Christmas Trees
Growing Christmas trees is a long, hard task. Some people may think that once a tree is put in the ground, there is nothing more to do until it's time to cut it. But this is far from the truth.

Your tree starts as a small seedling less than a foot tall planted by a Christmas tree farmer. Once the seedlings are planted in the plantation, grass and weed control is the next order of business. The field must be mowed during the summer and be kept free of weeds around the seedlings. Throughout the growing season, the farmer must monitor the plantation for insects and disease and treat the trees accordingly.

After the seedlings have been in the ground for a few years, the shearing begins. In order to develop a Christmas tree, it must be sheared (pruned) each year until it is ready for market (which can be anywhere from 5-15 yrs depending on species). Unsheared trees will take on an appearance of a "Charlie Brown" tree - skinny and spindly.

How to Keep Your Tree Fresh and Safe
Keeping the tree fresh with water is an important safety consideration. According to the National Fire Protection Association, approximately 1/10 of one percent of residential fires involve a Christmas tree (both real and artificial). So, the idea of Christmas trees being a fire hazard is not true. Fires around Christmas trees are far more likely to have been caused by ignited newspapers, packages or even Christmas gifts. To keep your tree fresh and safe, be sure to keep water in the stand and periodically check your tree by testing the needles to see if they're becoming loose or brittle. As long as your needles are flexible and firmly attached to the branches, your tree should be in good shape.

Being indoors will dry out your tree considerably, so it is crucial that you keep water in the Christmas tree stand at all times. The first few days that a tree is in the house, it may take up as much as a quart of water each day. If you let it go dry, even for a day, the vessels that take up water in the tree will close. From that point on, it doesn't matter how much water you put in the stand. The tree can't take any of it up.

Overloaded electrical outlets and faulty wires are the most common causes of holiday fires. So, check your wiring, don't overload your outlets and turn off the lights at night and when you're not home.

Colorant
Once a tree is ready for market, there is an additional step done of which most people are unaware. There is a green colorant sprayed on the Colorant tree that serves a dual purpose. It is natural for most evergreen trees to take on a yellow cast during winter months. The green colorant, as it's name implies, helps maintain that deep green color that people expect of a Christmas tree.

The colorant also helps the needles retain moisture which helps keep the tree from drying out over the holidays. So, if you notice what looks to be the residue of green spray paint on the trunk of your Christmas tree, don't panic. You haven't bought a dead tree that was spray-painted green. That's just part of the process.

Picking a good tree
When you select your tree, you first want to make sure that it's fresh. If you go to a choose and cut farm (where you cut your own), you know it's fresh because the tree was still growing in the field. But, if you go to a retail lot, some of these trees may have been cut a month or more ago. Take a branch in your hand and pull towards you. If green needles come off in your hand, you should look for another tree.

Keeping the needles from shedding
Once you have your tree selected, you'll want to have it shaken. Some lots or farms have shakers that will do this mechanically and that's best. If that's not available, when you get it home, stand it on your driveway or sidewalk and vigorously shake the tree as best you can. Be sure to pick it up a few inches off the ground and pound it on the ground to shake needles out of it. It is completely normal for Christmas trees to have dead needles within the tree collected on the inner branches. When you shake the tree, those dead needles are what comes out.

During the holidays, you are bound to get some needles falling from your tree, particularly when you are moving your tree in or out of the house. There are Christmas tree bags available that make this process far less messy. You can put the bag on the tree outdoors before you bring it in, pull the bag up around the tree and once the tree is in place, pull the bag down so that it looks like a Christmas tree skirt. At the end of the season, simply pull the bag up, tie it and carry your tree out.

Adjusting the height and unclogging the tree
You may need to adjust the base of the tree for the height. After all, you don't want a tree whose tip curls along the ceiling. And, there is some truth to what you say about "unclogging" the base. Trees take up water through vessels in their trunk. When a tree is cut, sap will seep out and clog those vessels fairly soon after the tree is cut. So, if the tree is put in the stand with water right away, it is unnecessary to make that cut unless you want to adjust for height. But, if it will be a little while before you put the tree in the stand, it's a good idea to cut a half-inch or so from the base so that the tree will be able to take up water.

Why aren't Christmas trees not sold in water then?

Most Christmas trees sold in retail lots were cut long before yesterday—in fact, as much as a month or more ago. Since the water-carrying vessels within the tree will seal up within a few hours after the tree is cut, it would do no good to stand them in water after shipment to the retail lot. But as long as the trees are kept outdoors and the temperature is relatively cool, the trees will not dry out significantly. It is only when they are taken indoors to a warmer, drier environment that they lose moisture quickly. If you cut your own tree, you know it’s fresh; if you buy from a retail lot, you don’t know for sure how long it has been cut so you should check to be sure the needles are still firmly attached to the branches and are not brittle. In either case, I recommend cutting a 1/2 inch or so off the bottom of the tree just before putting it in your tree stand and adding water. That way you’re opening up fresh tissue at the base of the tree so it can take up water. And once it’s indoors, it will take up a LOT of water, so check it daily and don’t ever let it go dry!

    Can you recut the tree?

    Yes, you can recut the tree allowing it to take up water again. However, in order to do so, you would have to take all of the decorations off the tree, take the tree down and outside, cut another half-inch or so off the base of the tree and then put the tree back up. Obviously, it is far less work to just make sure there is plenty of water in the stand. But, it can be done.

    Can I buy a Christmas tree with roots so that I can plant it after Christmas?

    Many people use bald and burlap trees for their Christmas tree with plans to plant it after the holidays. This can be done successfully, however, it is a little tricky. The tree must remain outdoors most of the season because of the drying effects of being indoors. So, if you plan to do this, I would recommend the following

    1. Put the tree outdoors somewhere that you can enjoy it and bring it indoors for only a few days.

    2. Keep in mind that even a 5 ft tall tree is going to be very heavy and have a 2-foot root ball. So, it's going to be difficult to handle and move.

    3. Dig your hole now before the ground freezes. This will make it much easier to plant the tree.

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