The beloved Christmas tree dates back more than a thousand years. We bring them into our homes, add lights and decorate. When I see the trees in the Holiday section at the store, I can’t help but feel like Linus during “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” asking myself: “Do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Fortunately, there is only one choice for me: The “real” Christmas tree. Maybe it’s because I’m an Arborist, but there is nothing like spending time as a family picking out the “perfect” tree, cutting it down, bringing it home and keeping up the tradition carried on since the 16th century.
If your preference is a real tree, there is now an increasingly popular second option: the “living” Christmas tree. A “living” Christmas tree is typically grown in a container or machine dug from a nursery field. The larger trees are balled, burlapped and quite heavy from the included soil and root system. These “living” trees are brought into our homes during the holidays just like their fresh-cut counterparts, but instead of tossing them into the woods after the holidays, they’re planted in our landscape.
As an Arborist, I know the practice of taking a “living” tree from cold outdoor temperatures indoors to the warmth of your home then bringing it back outside puts incredible stress on the plant. Beginning in the fall, trees gather resources such as nutrients and water in preparation for winter. These reserves are held in the roots as the tree enters its dormancy. Dormancy, a time when the plant enters a period of slowed root activity and halted stem growth, is triggered by cold temperatures and might be comparable to hibernation for animals.
When the tree is introduced into your warm home during the holidays, it can awaken from its dormancy by using the reserves in the root system. This would not be a problem if the tree was replanted in the ground in April as opposed to January when typically below freezing temperatures are upon us. Reintroducing the plant outdoors in January doesn’t allow time for the tree to restore the reserve of water and nutrients to be able to break dormancy again in the spring. This would be like a bear awaking from hibernation, then being forced to hibernate again without anything to eat. The poor bear wouldn’t’t have the energy to survive a second cycle.
Environmental concerns are another reason for the gain in popularity of the “living” Christmas tree. The thought of planting a tree instead of cutting one down is no doubt appealing, especially as an Arborist, but unfortunately the process of green house production and field harvesting is not as sustainable as one might think. Greenhouses use an incredible amount of water to irrigate container plants and have increased pest problems due to confined space. Field harvesting typically uses diesel-powered machines that emit carbon and disturb soils. Field harvesting also removes soil from farmland when packaged with a balled and burlapped tree. Fuel usage also increases when transporting living trees, as two-thirds of the weight per tree can be attributed to the included soil.
On the contrary, cut Christmas trees have less transportation costs, require less machinery to harvest, and the farms are great habitat for wildlife, especially birds. The best environmental secret of cut Christmas trees is that many trees can be harvested from the same stump. When a tree is cut down in late fall the reserves we talked about earlier will be used to send up new shoots in the spring. These new shoots can be pruned to create a new tree, limiting the soil disturbance that can happen from mass planting.
If a “living” Christmas tree is an absolute MUST for your Holiday tradition, please remember to keep the root system of the tree moist. Try to set up your tree away from wood or pellet stoves, as excessive heat can cause drying of the foliage. Most importantly, limit the amount of time your tree is indoors. 7-10 days is recommended, as your tree will start coming out of dormancy soon after that.
Personally, it’s not the holidays unless I’m underneath my fresh cut tree every night giving it water with my faithful dog. Yes, I get sap on my hands and poked in the eye by the needles, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Whatever type of tree comes into your home for Christmas, I hope it brings joy and warmth to you and your family. Happy holidays from everyone here at ArborTech!