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Selection & Care of Cut Christmas Trees

Posted: December 3, 2012

Despite the popularity and life-like appearance of modern artificial trees, nothing says “Christmas” like the fragrance a cut, live Christmas tree brings to your home. Beyond the initial set up and making sure it always has water, a well-selected cut tree is not much more trouble than an artificial one. And you do not have to worry about storing it for the rest of the year!

Varieties

There is no right or wrong type of tree to buy – consumers have their favorites for their own reasons. Some of the most popular conifers grown for Christmas trees include:

Douglas-firs have soft, flat, blue-green needles that are attached singly to the stem. Their naturally symmetrical growth habit yields a full, attractive Christmas tree, and their reputation for good needle retention makes Douglas-fir one of the most popular species to invite home for the holidays. The branches are moderately stiff and may not be suitable for the heaviest ornaments. Best of all, Douglas-fir has a sweet citrusy scent that most people enjoy.

Frasier and balsam firs have soft, flat, dark green needles marked by silver bands on the undersides. They are thicker than Douglas-fir needles, and are also attached singly to the stem. Their overall growth habit is a bit more stiff than that of a Douglas-fir, but quite attractive, and they also win praise for good needle retention. Their branches are moderately stiff and may not be suitable for the heaviest ornaments. The spicy, resinous fragrance makes Frasier and balsam firs holiday favorites.

White and Scotch pines have needles bundled into groups of five (white pine) or two (Scotch pine). They are tightly sheared when grown as Christmas trees to create a dense, full shape. Both are popular, traditional Christmas trees with good reputations for needle retention. Scotch pine is quite strong and will hold heavy ornaments with ease; white pine is more flexible and may not support the heaviest ornaments. Both perfume a room with a clean pine fragrance.

Colorado blue spruce has sharp, square needles that are attached singly to the stem. Valued for their blue-green to silvery blue color, Colorado blue spruce has gained popularity as a Christmas tree. They tend to have a symmetrical growth habit and hold the heaviest ornaments without complaint. They hold their needles well, but only if care is taken to make sure they NEVER run out of water. Once they dry out, even once, many needles will fall. Another drawback is that their needles are very sharp – this is not a good selection for homes with small children.

Selecting a Fresh Tree

You can definitely be assured of getting a fresh tree if you cut your own tree from a local Christmas tree farm. While this is a cherished family tradition for many, the convenience of purchasing a pre-cut tree is more attractive for others.

To check a pre-cut tree for freshness, look for flexible needles that remain firmly attached when you tug on them. All needled evergreens shed their oldest needles every year, so do not be concerned when brown needles fall from the interior of the tree when you knock the base of the tree on the ground. Just make sure they are thoroughly shaken off the tree before taking it indoors. If the needles pull out easily, or if they appear a dull, lifeless green, that tree may be past its prime.

Indoor Care

If you need to hold the tree for a few days before putting it up indoors, keep it in a sheltered area out of direct sun and wind – perhaps an unheated garage, or the north or east side of your house, preferably in a container of water to keep it fresh. Make a new cut about one-quarter inch deep across the base of the trunk to open fresh vascular tissue. The cut should be straight across so the tree sits properly in the stand. Also, try not to damage the bark on the trunk too much. A tree’s vascular system is right under the bark, and it is important to keep it as intact as possible so that the tree can absorb water freely.

Once you have a fresh cut on the base, place the tree in a bucket, tree stand or other container of water and make sure the base of the trunk is always submerged. If the base of the tree does dry out and seal up, you will have to re-cut the base to allow it to absorb sufficient water.

When you take it indoors, remember that cooler temperatures and higher humidity will prolong the life of the tree. If possible, close heat vents in that room to keep it cooler. Keep the tree as far away as possible from heat vents, fireplaces, and out of south and west windows that receive the strongest sun.

A tree disposal bag – usually available where you purchase cut trees – can make clean up much easier. It should be placed around the base of the tree before you place in the stand, and will be hidden by the tree skirt. When you are ready to take the tree down, simply pull the disposal bag up over the branches. This will reduce your after-holiday needle cleanup to practically nothing.

Make sure your tree stand holds at least one gallon of water, and a larger reservoir is even better. Cut trees use about a quart of water per inch of trunk diameter a day, and the water must always cover the base of the tree. Although the tree will use the most water during the first week indoors, be sure to check it daily and add water as needed as long as it is up. Be sure the water level is up over the base of the tree. If the base is allowed to dry for six hours or so, the sap will seal off the vascular system and you will need to recut the base, something that may not be easy once the tree has been decorated. You do not need to add anything to the water – there is no evidence that adding aspirin, sugar or Christmas tree preservative extends the life of cut trees better than plain water.

After the holidays

When you are ready to take the tree down after the holidays, do not be in hurry to send it to a landfill. Evergreen boughs make a great mulch for perennial flowering plants that do not tolerate other mulches that can hold excessive moisture around their crowns. They can also be placed on the ground near bird feeders to create a little shelter for ground-feeding birds. Also, many communities have a special pick up or designate a drop off site for Christmas trees. They may hold a big community bonfire or grind the trees into mulch that can be used for the garden in spring.

Contact Information

Sandy Feather
  • Extension Educator, Green Industry
Email:
Phone: 412-482-3454