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The Truth About Live Christmas Trees

Shopping, Decorating, and Recycling Tips

You know how the song goes: Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches! But how do you keep those branches looking lovely all season long? 

You can start by selecting the right tree. There are around 350 million real Christmas trees growing in the United States, and 25 to 30 million of them make their way to homes across America for the holiday season.

In fact, Virginia is home to more than 500 Christmas tree farms. With annual sales of Virginia Christmas trees around $10 million, the Commonwealth’s Christmas tree industry is a strong contributor to the state’s agricultural economy.

So what should you look for when buying a live tree? Here’s some advice for selecting, caring for, and disposing of Christmas trees.

Trees are like produce. You want the freshest one you can find. The fresher, the better. If possible, visit a cut-your-own tree farm in your area. That’s the best way of making sure you have a freshly cut tree. If that’s not an option and you’re buying your tree from a lot, ask the salesperson where the trees were grown and when they were harvested.

Buying a Virginia-grown Christmas tree is not only an important way to support Virginia farmers, but it’s also great for the environment, as Christmas trees are both renewable and recyclable. Additionally, for every tree cut, growers replant two to three seedlings in its place. 

You can search for Virginia Christmas tree growers online at virginiagrown.com and on the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association’s website at virginiachristmastrees.org.

Virginia is home to more than 500 Christmas tree farms with annual sales of Virginia Christmas trees around $10 million. Please try to buy a Virginia-grown tree.

Trees suitable for the holiday season have different characteristics, so it’s good to know what you’re looking for in a Christmas tree. Here are the most popular holiday tree picks.

Fraser fir: Holds needles the longest of most soft-needle trees. It’s fragrant, easy to decorate, and one of the most desirable and available trees. The Fraser fir is native to southwest Virginia and North Carolina.

Spruce: Has prickly needles, loses needles early, and is expensive and hard to find.

Juniper (eastern red cedar): Native and easy to find in the wild. Its prickly and weak limbs make it hard to decorate, and it dries out rapidly.

White pine: Very limp limbs make it hard to decorate, has medium needle retention and no fragrance.

Before you leave the lot with your tree, inspect it carefully and do these things:

• Observe the overall shape and whether the needles are a rich green color. If the tree is off-color, choose another.

• Tamp the butt of the tree on the hard ground to shake out old needles and any debris.

• Once you have selected your tree, have the lot salesperson cut an inch to an inch-and-a-half off the end and place the butt in water for a day.

A good tree stand is also essential for keeping your tree at its best through the holidays. Most trees will have a 6-inch diameter at the base. Make sure your stand is large enough to hold the tree. Water the tree as soon as you place it in the stand, and keep the water level around the trunk at two to three inches. The tree will keep absorbing water until the tree plugs its water conducting vessels.

Before you decorate your tree, check electrical cords of tree lights for frayed insulation. Do not use if the cord is frayed or if light sockets are malfunctioning. The heat buildup from poorly maintained electrical cords and sockets could ignite a tree. Keeping pets and young children away from the tree is also a good idea.

The tree is unsafe and a high fire hazard when the green needles turn a grayish green color and fall off when you pull on a twig. There is no scientific evidence that any additives to the plain water will increase the water uptake and prolong the absorption of water.

After the holidays, check with county services to see if there are programs to recycle your tree into the environment. This is beneficial, especially for urban wildlife. In January, Christmas trees can be placed in a pond for fish habitat or piled in the open for bird or small mammal cover and breeding. In your backyard, trees can also be placed near a window and decorated with bagels or pinecones with peanut butter, or fruits tied to the limbs. This provides birds with a place to roost and feed, and nature lovers and birdwatchers get a great view from inside.


Photos: S. B. Vonlanthen, David Boozer

Joel Koci
Joel Koci is an associate extension specialist for agriculture and natural Resources at the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University. Koci is also a board-certified master arborist who specializes in urban forestry.
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