Growing Together: Let the 'fir' fly in battle between real and artificial Christmas trees

FARGO - I chuckle whenever I'm reminded of the origins of America's artificial Christmas trees. They were invented when a toilet bowl brush manufacturer created a tree from brush bristles in the 1930s. I guess when an artificial tree eventually l...

Fraser fir is America's favorite tree for Christmas such as this tree from Baker Garden and Gift.David Samson / The Forum
Christmas trees grown as a crop on tree farms help purify air and water until harvest time. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - I chuckle whenever I'm reminded of the origins of America's artificial Christmas trees. They were invented when a toilet bowl brush manufacturer created a tree from brush bristles in the 1930s. I guess when an artificial tree eventually loses its holiday luster, the branches can be repurposed for bathroom cleaning.

Real and non-real Christmas tree enthusiasts both have legitimate reasons for their choice. When my wife, Mary, and I sold Christmas trees, we heard many stories opposing real trees. Fluffy always tipped over real trees as she climbed inside the branches. Little toddler Dexter might chew on its branches. Some couples needed a marriage counselor on call, as they attempted jointly to stabilize a real tree upright in its stand.

What about the environmental impact? Isn't it a shame to cut all those trees for just a few weeks of indoor enjoyment? Christmas trees are planted purposely as a crop. We needn't weep over their harvest any more than we'd weep over the cutting of wheat to make bread. They aren't pillaged from native forests.

There are 12,000 Christmas tree growers in the United States growing 400 million trees. The trees purify the air and groundwater, stabilize soil and provide home for wildlife. As trees reach harvest size, replacements are planted.

Real trees aren't 100 percent environmentally friendly. Pesticides are often used. Cultivation requires tractor fuel. Trucks burn gas hauling trees to market. Even cut-your-own tree operations require fuel consumption as buyers drive to the tree farm. And of course, a new tree must be purchased every year.


Artificial trees, on the other hand, are used for an average of six or more Christmases by Americans. Their environmental toll includes shipping on diesel freighters from coal-fired Chinese factories, where 80 percent are made. Their polyvinyl chloride plastic is non-biodegradable in the eventual landfill.

So which scores best environmentally? There's discrepancy in data, especially since the manufacture of most artificial trees is in China.

There's a break-even point in the discussion. Most sources conclude that real trees leave a smaller carbon footprint than artificial trees, unless the artificials are used for at least nine years, possibly longer (some sources indicate up to 20 years). When kept for between nine and 20 years, artificial trees result in a lower carbon footprint than purchasing real trees year after year.


Real tree types

1. Fraser fir is the national favorite. They're full, symmetrical, straight-trunked and can last from late November through New Year's Day.

2. Balsam fir is lighter green in color with needles arranged flatly along branches. Perhaps the most fragrant tree, they'll remain fresh three weeks indoors, sometimes longer.

3. Noble fir is much like Fraser in longevity but looks almost like Colorado spruce, but softer.


4. White pine has a distinctive soft look with needles about 4 inches long. Its flexible branches necessitate decorating with lightweight ornaments.

5. Scotch pine is usually less expensive than the others. Three-inch needles tend to be prickly. Watch carefully for crooked trunks.


How to choose a fresh tree

1. The freshest trees will feel moist and pliable. Branch ends should bend without breaking, unless temperatures are cold. Branches of frozen trees are often brittle, which makes determining freshness more difficult.

2. Fresh trees are heavy for their height. Dry trees are light.

3. Previous year's old brown needles on the tree's interior don't necessarily mean the tree is dry. It's normal, and they're often shaken out by the retailer as they prepare trees for sale.

4. Green, current-season needles shouldn't be dry and shedding. But even fresh fir trees will drop some needles if jostled.



Care at home

Cut an inch from the base and place in water as soon as possible. Water-absorbing pores begin to close when they're exposed to air.

What to add to the water? Home remedies like aspirin, vodka, 7UP, vinegar, sugar and bleach can do more harm than good, as proven by exhaustive research. Plenty of water--either warm or cold--is the best recommendation.

Commercial Christmas tree preservatives haven't been verifiably proven to help, but I think they're a good idea.


Poinsettia challenge

Calling all poinsettia growers! A year ago, I challenged each of us (myself included) to keep our poinsettias growing and follow the requirements for getting them to bloom for Christmas 2015.

The time has come. Whether our poinsettias are beautiful, or whether they died along the way, let's share our experiences in the Dec. 19 Growing Together column.

If you're growing a poinsettia, please briefly describe your adventure and email to me by Dec. 10 at . Photos would be great, or just give me a description, and I'll compile our stories.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at .

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