365 Days of Christmas
A real tree can be more than a beautiful emblem of nature in your home. After the holidays are over, it can serve as a gift to wildlife year-round.
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.