The Most Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree?
From “365 Days of Christmas” (Audubon, Nov-Dec 2005)
Long before the plastic, pre-lit, silver-spritzed $39.99 special took the holidays by storm, people were decorating natural trees for celebrations. Egyptians gathered palm branches for fertility; Romans trimmed evergreens to honor their sun god; Druids hung apples and candles on oak trees to mark the winter solstice. Then, about 500 years ago in Latvia, the first Christmas trees were born.
The quaint foreign custom took a while to catch on in the United States. It wasn't until 1851 that Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from the Catskill Mountains to the streets of New York City and opened the country's first Christmas tree lot. But, oh, have we come a long way since then. In the United States today about half a million acres of land are used by 22,000 Christmas tree growers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and each year more than 32 million trees are sold for the holidays.
Is cutting down a tree really being a good friend of nature, though? Well, yes. If you follow some tried-and-true advice both before and after you buy it, you can have your tree and save it, too. Long after the lights and tinsel are packed away for the season, a real tree can be a gift to wildlife.
The best addition to your holiday household is a live tree with the root-ball still attached, since it can be replanted following your festivities. A few handy tips will greatly increase its odds of surviving once it's outdoors again. First make sure you've selected a species compatible—and preferably native—with your local environment, such as white pine in Maine or Douglas fir in Washington. The larger the tree, the more likely it will suffer from transplant shock, so pick a smaller one (no larger than five feet). Place the tree away from heaters or direct sunlight to prevent it from drying out. If your tree is not potted, put the root-ball in a bucket; a live tree may need as much as a gallon of water every day.
Since most trees go dormant in winter, you risk waking yours up if you keep it indoors too long. Ideally, it should be inside for less than a week. If you live in a region where winters are mild, you can till an area four to five times the size of the root-ball, dig a hole, and cover the soil with enough straw or mulch to keep it from freezing. Prepare the tree for its new home by putting it in a moderately cool area, like a garage, for a week or so before placing it in the ground. It's okay to leave natural burlap around the roots, but treated burlap or nylon should be removed. After planting, spread two to three inches of mulch and water around the base, and wait until spring to fertilize. If you live in a region where the ground is usually frozen by midwinter, you can put your tree outside in a sheltered area, heavily mulch the root-ball, and wait for the soil to thaw enough to proceed with planting.
If you lack a green thumb or if your climate is too harsh for wintertime planting, a cut tree still tops a plastic one any day. Nine million of the artificial ones—80 percent of which are manufactured in faraway China—are sold each year, and consist of metal as well as plastics made from petroleum. Though their average lifespan is six years in your home, they last for eternity in a landfill. Real trees are biodegradable, and, if grown and cut responsibly, contribute to a thriving ecosystem.
Until the 1950s, when the business of ornamental tree farms first began, most cut Christmas trees came from the forest; now about 98 percent are shipped or sold directly from tree farms. Some growers are huge, and sell hundreds of thousands of trees throughout the country. Some are tiny, selling fewer than several hundred each year. Proponents are quick to point out that farmed trees offer several environmental benefits: They provide oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air, stabilize soils, help reduce flooding, and provide shelter for animals.
And because Christmas trees are often grown on land retired from other uses—generally fallow fields or former cow pastures—they're not supplanting older-growth forest. What's more, when planted next to a natural woodland, a stand of Christmas trees creates an “edge effect” that increases wildlife diversity, notes Nigel Manley, director of The Rocks Estate, where the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests grows Christmas trees on protected land. Its groves—from which about 6,000 trees are sold each year—serve as a transition between forest and field, increasing the variety of habitat available to wildlife. Birds like grosbeaks, sparrows, woodcocks, and chickadees find shelter there, along with rodents and small game like partridges and hares.
“Our bird counts have actually gone up since we've had the Christmas tree farms,” says Manley, an avid birdwatcher. “We had an increase in species that feed and nest right in the trees, particularly waxwings and goldfinches. And since we don't mow the open fields between the trees until late August, we've also had an increase in ground nesters like bobolinks.”
Before you rush out to look for the perfect pine, there is something else to consider: Not all Christmas trees are as green as they appear. In order to create the storybook shape, tree farmers often resort to a liberal dose of chemicals. More than 20 insect pests and 6 plant diseases afflict Scotch pine—one of the most popular Christmas tree species in the country—alone. In natural forests, which have a diversity of tree species, these enemies are kept in check; the practice of growing Christmas trees in monocultures, much like corn, exacerbates the problem.
As a consequence, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are used on most Christmas trees, and more than 20 different pesticides are employed in tree production. One of the most commonly applied is chlorpyrifos (which may sell under the trade names of Lorsban and Dursban), an organophosphate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency phased out for home use because of its neurotoxic effects. Lindane, an organochlorine pesticide in the same class as DDT, is considered highly toxic to some birds and extremely toxic to fish, and has been phased out for use on trees, though existing stocks are still in use, particularly in North Carolina. Insecticides of a third group, the synthetic and natural pyrethroids, are slightly toxic to birds and mammals but very toxic to fish.
It's not just wildlife that may be threatened, warns Kagan Owens, a former program director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization working to reduce pesticide use through policy and education. “When we buy Christmas trees, we just don't think about whether we're bringing those chemicals into our home. It's possible that you'd be getting a tree where they just applied it, and depending on the environment—the tree's exposure to light, moisture, where it's been stored—residues sometimes can last for days or weeks.”
Don't panic and abandon your local tree farmers altogether, though. Ask about their growing practices, and assure them that you can live with an imperfect tree if it means cutting down on chemicals—that, in fact, you'd prefer it. They need to know you'll support them if they decide to experiment with more natural methods. If you live in North Carolina, Texas, Maine, or Pennsylvania, odds are good that you can find tree farmers who have already made this commitment. These states are leading the growth of the burgeoning organic tree industry.
In 2002 Curtis Buchanan of Mitchell County, North Carolina, became the first grower to certify organic acreage, for his field of Fraser firs. Since then he and other organic growers have been refining nontoxic remedies, such as fighting needle fungus with hydrogen peroxide. Another environmentally friendly option is seeking out farmers who practice integrated pest management, or IPM. They reduce chemical use by diligently monitoring fields for insects and disease. Instead of wholesale preventive chemical spraying, farmers inspect trees, and might, for example, selectively prune branches damaged by shoot-boring insects. By scouting for signs of pests before economic damage happens, farmers don't have to resort to heavy spraying for every infestation.
Even after the last presents have disappeared from beneath its drooping branches, your Christmas tree can keep on giving. A survey commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association found that 93 percent of people who bought a real tree recycled it in some way. Many wildlife refuge managers, for example, are happy to receive donations of old Christmas trees. Put in ponds, the trees give fish a place to lay their eggs, and on land they provide small animals with shelter from the elements. Or they can be placed in your own yard as important winter habitat for birds and other wildlife.
For the past 20 years Margaret O'Bryan, a former president of Virginia's Richmond Audubon Society, who lives in Mechanicsville, has been doing just that. “I visit Christmas tree lots and ask them what they do with their unsold trees,” she explains. “And usually they say, ‘Well, we take them to the dump.' So I ask if I can get whatever they don't sell.” O'Bryan then uses these castoffs to build towering, 15-foot-high piles on her property. “We call it the Great Wall of Mechanicsville,” she says. This eighth wonder of the world offers cover for wildlife year-round. “It is just incredible how many birds immediately find it. Within a day they're all in it, from brown thrashers to cedar waxwings. It's really wild. We also have lots of box turtles and toads. Chipmunks love it. From the brush pile across the yard, they've actually worn a little path.”
Even just one tree can serve as a hiding place for birds. “We put our cut tree out after Christmas, propped up near the feeding platform in the backyard,” says Jennifer Wilson-Pines, president of the North Shore Audubon Society in Port Washington, New York. Though she has shrubs, vines, and small trees planted, “the dense branches of the Christmas tree provide an even better refuge. I've seen the tree stuffed full of sparrows and finches.”
Trees can be decorated outdoors as well, providing birds with an important source of food in winter. In addition to her brush piles, O'Bryan creates a feeder out of at least one tree: “I melt peanut butter, butter, and a little cornmeal together, and while it's still soft, I pour it all down the tree. Hermit thrushes, kinglets, and yellow-rumped warblers all get deep into the branches to get the peanut butter off the trunk.”
Wildlife-friendly ornaments are easy to make, and the rewards for both birds and birdwatchers are great. String garlands of unsalted popped popcorn, cranberries, unsalted peanuts still in the shell, apple slices, and orange segments to attract titmice, jays, and mockingbirds. Pinecones spread with a mixture of peanut butter, suet, and cornmeal and rolled in birdseed will bring woodpeckers, grackles, blue jays, and nuthatches flocking. You can also fill cups, made from the rinds of halved oranges, with sunflower seeds, which will entice chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and purple and house finches. Millet seed stalks twisted into the shape of wreaths lure goldfinches and pine siskins.
If you don't have enough yard to put your leftover tree to work, many towns have Christmas tree recycling programs with designated drop-off points or curbside pickup; many nurseries and botanical gardens also accept spent trees. They're typically chipped up for mulch, which you can pick up to use in your garden in the spring. Your thriving yard will be a holiday gift to yourself and to wildlife that lasts way beyond the 12 days of Christmas, all year long.
Gretel H. Schueller, a former Audubon associate editor, is a Vermont-based journalist specializing in science and the environment.